Steven Stamkos made his long-awaited postseason debut for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Wednesday’s Game 3 win. It was a triumphant return for the captain, but also painstakingly short; could it be the last we see of him this summer?

Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars look to even up the Stanley Cup Final at two games apiece, and they need their biggest stars to step up — and, once again, to stay out of the penalty box.

Check out ESPN NHL Playoffs Today every day of the postseason until the Stanley Cup is handed out.

More: What each eliminated team should prioritize this offseason to get better.

Today’s game

Game 4: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1) | 8 p.m.

On Thursday, Dallas coach Rick Bowness repeatedly had to answer questions about his big three — Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov — and their lack of production so far in this series. The trio has combined for zero goals and three assists (all of which came from Radulov).

“Do we need more from the top guys?” Bowness said. “Every team does. We’re hoping that’s coming, but until it does, if it does, then we’re going to keep battling. We’re going to stay in games, and give ourselves a good chance to win based on team play and everyone contributing at different times. That’s why we’re here. We made it here by committee, by team play and we’re going to keep the focus on that.”

The Lightning are playing coy about Stamkos’ status yet again — a trend that probably will continue for the rest of the series.


Question of the day: Will we see Ben Bishop over the weekend?

Stamkos isn’t the only injured star player in this series. Ben Bishop’s absence hasn’t loomed too large, as Anton Khudobin has filled in quite competently. However, with a back-to-back set on the schedule for Games 4 and 5, it’s feasible that the Stars might sit Khudobin for one of those matches.

Let’s just say 26-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy is much more likely to start both games than is the 34-year-old Khudobin.

Jake Oettinger has been Khudobin’s primary backup — and even got third-period action in Game 3 after Khudobin was pulled — but the 21-year-old had zero NHL experience entering this summer. Bishop, who rushed himself back from injury in a disastrous appearance against Colorado, hasn’t played since Aug. 31.

Bishop is still unfit to play as of Thursday, but on Wednesday — the first day reporters were allowed to observe a Stars morning skate — Bishop appeared to be a full participant on the ice. How rich of a storyline would it be if Bishop got a chance to help save the series for the Stars, against his former team no less?

Let the intrigue build!


Quote of the day

“Tight-knit is an understatement. This group, they’d lay in traffic for each other, and that’s what I’ve seen grow during this playoffs and probably a reason why we’re having some success.” –Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper on how his group has grown closer in the bubble.


Three players to watch in Game 4

Miro Heiskanen, D, Dallas Stars

He’s still probably the Stars’ Conn Smythe front-runner, and needs just one point to become the sixth defenseman in NHL playoff history to score 25 points in a single postseason. He would join the likes of Paul Coffey, Brian Leetch, Al MacInnis, Ray Bourque and Denis Potvin, all of whom are all Hall of Famers.

Steven Stamkos, F, Tampa Bay Lightning

Plain and simple: Does he play, and how much? Stamkos took only five shifts in his first game back before running into an “issue” and being relegated to the bench. Jon Cooper has said he doesn’t believe in having players in the lineup for “specialized” or limited roles, such as only on the power play. So if he’s a go, he’s a full go.

Mikhail Sergachev, D, Tampa Bay Lightning

The 22-year-old is quietly having a terrific postseason. “I can’t sit here and say there’s a ceiling with Sergachev because I don’t know if there is one,” Cooper said. “I’ve had the pleasure of watching Victor [Hedman] grow the last eight years and there are a lot of similarities on how they started their careers and where they’re going.” That’s hefty praise.


Social post of the day

Happy second birthday to everyone’s favorite orange fuzzy friend! He’s not in the bubble, but this is definitely still the NHL fit of the day.





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