Steven Stamkos is back.
Stamkos set up the go-ahead goal in his return from a right knee injury and the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Florida Panthers 5-3 on Friday night in the season opener for both teams.
Stamkos missed the final 65 games last season with a torn meniscus in the knee, an injury that required surgery. He sent a pass from the left circle through the slot to Vladislav Namestnikov, who put Tampa Bay up 3-2 from near the post 59 seconds into the final period during a power play.
“I was looking forward to this game for a while,” Stamkos said. “Training camp is one thing, preseason’s another. Getting into the regular season is different. It was a good step and it felt pretty good. I’m just going to keep improving and getting stronger as the season goes on.”
Roberto Luongo turned aside Stamkos’ shot from the slot late in the second.
Ondrej Palat had two goals, and Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov also scored for the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 33 saves.
Tampa Bay missed the playoffs last season after reaching the Stanley Cup Finals and the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
“These wins mean a lot,” Stamkos said. “We took advantage of a big power play in the third and got the lead, and held on to it.”
Florida got goals from Connor Brickley Mark Pysyk and Jonathan Huberdeau, and Luongo stopped 20 shots. New Panthers coach Bob Boughner took the loss in his NHL coaching debut.
“We did a lot of good things,” Florida defenseman Keith Yandle said. “I like the way we played. I like the way that we competed.”
Kucherov extended the Tampa Bay advantage to 4-2 at 6:38 of the third.
Huberdeau cut it to 4-3 with 5 1/2 minutes to play, but Palat secured Tampa Bay’s win with a late empty-netter.
Shortly after Vasilevskiy made an in-close save on Aleksander Barkov, Palat opened the scoring on a backhander at 6:33 of the first.
Point made it 2-0 25 seconds into the second.
Brickley, positioned just outside the crease, pulled Florida to 2-1 midway through the second off a nifty pass by Alex Petrovic.
The Panthers tied it at 2 on Pysyk’s goal with 2:13 left in the second.
Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan, who missed 64 games last season because of a hip injury, also was in the lineup.
NOTES: Tampa Bay is 16-7-0-2 in season openers, the best winning percentage in the NHL. … Tampa Bay D Jake Dotchin, limited to one preseason game after violating an undisclosed team rule, was scratched. … Florida RW Owen Tippett, taken 10th overall in this year’s draft, didn’t play. The move allows the 18-year old additional time to prepare for his NHL debut, which should come in the near future. … There were six slashing penalties. The NHL is cracking down this season on that infraction.
The teams meet again Saturday night in the Panthers’ home opener.
Republished with permission from the Associated Press.