Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was alone in the left circle during the first period of Tuesday night’s Game 3 when he collected a pass from defenseman Victor Hedman and rocketed a one-timer past Washington Capitals’ defender Matt Niskanen and goalie Braden Holtby to give the Lighting a 1-0  lead.

It was perfectly executed — an unstoppable, momentum-changing shot.

With Tampa facing a potential 3-0 series deficit in the Eastern Conference finals, the Lightning needed a jolt — and it came in the form of an early goal by its captain. The Lightning rode that flash of energy from Stamkos’s power-play goal for the remainder of Game 3, en route to a 4-2 victory at Capital One Arena.

“When he shoots it like that — he’s done it for so long and scored so many goals from there — I think it is hard to cover him,” Tampa forward J.T. Miller said. “You have Kuch [Nikita Kucherov] on the other side of him doing the same thing for the most part so it is definitely a threat our power play possess.”

The Capitals still lead the series 2-1; Thursday’s Game 4 will have major implications for both teams in the series. For the Lightning to avoid falling into a 3-1 hole, it will need players like Stamkos, and Kucherov, to continue providing plays like Tuesday’s.

“Think of Kucherov and Stamkos, those guys leading the charge, when we’ve needed them in the big games,” Tampa Coach Jon Cooper said. “So say Game 4 in the Boston series, Game 4 in the Jersey series, Game 3 in the Washington series, those guys have delivered when we’ve needed them. Often times, that’s what those guys do. They come in when you need them.”

Stamkos has five power-play goals in 13 playoff games in this postseason, including one in each of the past three games against Washington. He has six total goals and nine assists in these playoffs after scoring 27 goals and 59 assists in the regular season. It was a bounce-back performance for the veteran player, after missing nearly all of the 2016-17 campaign due to injury. 

Stamkos went down with a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee in November 2016 and was ruled out indefinitely. Tampa Bay struggled in his absence and narrowly missed the playoffs, finishing with 94 points. The 6-foot-1, 194-pound center, who chose to re-sign with the Lightning in June 2016, had been off to a fast start, collecting nine goals and 11 assists in 17 games before the injury. 

Stamkos said he felt like the team had a bit of a chip on its shoulder after last season’s disappointing finish and believed the team had put itself in position for playoff success this year.

“We’ve had this core for a long time now and being so close, losing in the Final [in 2015], everyone had a sense that we’d be a team that would have a chance to win every year,” Stamkos said. “It’s by no means easy to win in this league but when you have a team like we’ve assembled over the years, you want to be part of that and you want to be on a team that has a chance to do well in the playoffs.”

Stamkos went through a couple of nicks at the end of the season, but maintained he was ready to go come playoff time. He certainly wasn’t willing to miss another opportunity after having been injury-prone his entire career. In 2013-14, he had a broken leg. In 2015-16 he had a blood clot issue that kept him out the last two weeks of the regular season and every playoff game that year except for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Then last year, the knee injury. He’s played in all 13 playoff games for the Lightning this postseason.

“The more you play, the better you feel,” Stamkos said. “Obviously, when things start going and the confidence level gets higher and you find yourself wanting the puck more, wanting to make plays and wanting to shoot it. I think confidence is a big thing, and it’s going well right now. At the same time we want to continue that and continue that in wins. That’s why I think [Tuesday] night was great to be part of that.”

He had another scare in the third period of Game 3 in Washington after he took a slap shot off his leg. He was slow to get up and skated to the bench bent over in apparent pain, before hobbling down the tunnel to the team’s locker room. But Stamkos returned to the ice shortly after, ready to lead the Lightning charge.

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