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NHL

You Can’t Make Things Easy For The Lightning

Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning scores a goal past Anton Khudobin #35 of the Dallas Stars
Bruce Bennett/Getty

The Tampa Bay Lightning were not the better team in the first period of Wednesday night’s Game 3, as they got outshot 16 to 8 by a hungry-looking Stars group. But a couple of fortuitous plays allowed the Eastern Conference champs to get an early foothold on the game, and from there, they left Dallas in the dust, eventually winning 5-2 with a dominating display that put the Bolts two games away from lifting the Stanley Cup.

In a postseason devoid of postseason atmospheres the Lightning found an emotional boost on Wednesday with the return of their captain, Steven Stamkos, who hadn’t played since February because of surgery and injury. And just like in Game 2, they had their spirits lifted by some early scoring.

Barely five minutes into the game, top scoring Bolt man Nikita Kucherov was gifted the puck by Dallas’s normally flawless sophomore defender, Miro Heiskanen, who tried to make a blind pass as he was falling down in his own half. The slip-up gave Kucherov the most wide-open breakaway you’ll ever see, and he didn’t blow the opportunity, puncturing Anton Khudobin’s shield to make it 1-0.

Almost immediately afterward came the most memorable moment of the night. Stamkos, who hadn’t played competitive hockey in more than six months, ghosted through Esa Lindell as he entered the attacking zone with the puck, setting himself up for a storybook wrist shot that doubled the lead. The clearly-less-than-100-percent captain would pass the next two periods simply as an observer and cheerleader from the bench, but until an ultimately meaningless goal in the third from Dallas, his stood as the game-winner.

Though an odd shorthanded score by the Stars late in the first and their overall feisty play preserved the fantasy that this could be another tight struggle, the Lightning made it clear in the second that they owned the ice, and the Stars’ hopes were banished within 40 minutes. The special teams unit ignited star defenseman Victor Hedman with kind of a broken play that offered up a clear shot at Khudobin to make it 3-1. And then, as if to really drive home the point that the Lightning were leading a charmed life, Brayden Point tripped over the boards while starting his shift but ended it by scoring on a textbook two-on-one with Kucherov. The cherry on top came late in the second when, after an extended stretch of possession, Ondrej Palat put the puck in the net amid heavy traffic and some unpredictable bounces.

It would be difficult to win a seven game series against this Lightning even if the Stars were playing as the best possible versions of themselves, and right now, they’re far below that level. While the Lightning are getting all of their contributors—even Stamkos in 2:47 of ice time—to make a difference in the most important moments of the year, the Stars are still waiting on some of their biggest names to wake up. Corey Perry, with all his experience, hasn’t scored since Game 2 of the Calgary series. Tyler Seguin has now gone an incomprehensible 12 games with zero goals and one assist. Heiskanen finally showed his youth with that brutal mistake. Jamie Benn hasn’t tallied a point in the series and took himself out of the third period Wednesday with a misconduct penalty. And Khudobin has turned back into a pumpkin after a stellar series in net against Vegas.

“You flush the game out and get ready for Friday. That’s what we do,” said Stars coach Rick Bowness after the blowout. It’s a reasonably optimistic tone to take with the series still only 2-1. But if that doesn’t work, the Stars will have no more margin for error.