TAMPA — Before Thursday's home opener, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper pulled Steven Stamkos aside for a quick chat.
There was no body language, no sense of frustration or any other kind of signs that might indicate one of the league's top goal scorers was pressing over not scoring any goals in the first three games of the season.
But Cooper wanted to check, just in case.
“To be completely honest, this might have been the first time that I didn't, and usually I do,'' Stamkos said. “If I don't score in one game sometimes you have trouble sleeping in your pregame nap.''
Turns out it was Stamkos that would give the Florida Panthers nightmares Thursday while registering his sixth career hat trick in Tampa Bay's 7-2 trouncing of the Panthers in front of an announced sellout crowd of 19,204 at the Forum — the most goals in a home opener for Tampa Bay since the inaugural game in franchise history.
The three-goal showing was the first for Stamkos since scoring three times on New Year's Eve 2011 against Carolina.
“I kind of had an eerie feeling that tonight was going to be a good night,'' Stamkos said. “I just had a good feeling and when you play the game the right way, you get rewarded.''
New addition Valtteri Filppula also got in on the scoring act, notching a pair of goals for his ninth career multi-goal game while newly named captain Marty St. Louis fittingly opened the scoring 8:13 into the game to give Tampa Bay its first lead of the season. Ondrej Palat also scored while Teddy Purcell registered three assists to tie a career high. Ben Bishop stopped 19 shots to pick up the victory, the third in a row for the goaltender as well as the team as Tampa Bay moved to 3-1 on the season.
But the spotlight shined bright on Stamkos, who scored his second career shorthanded goal, added one at even strength which was set up by his big hit in the corner and capped the night off with a vintage power play goal, striking a one-timer from the left circle at 12:25 of the third period.
“There is really no better feeling than producing and helping your team win especially on a night like this in front of your fans,'' Stamkos said. “And that's what I have to do, I want to be the guy who is out there in all situations and it's really nice to get a shorthanded goal.''
The shorthanded goal was the first for Tampa Bay since Ryan Malone scored March 26, 2012 at Philadelphia and was the first on home ice since Nate Thompson scored while on the penalty kill against Atlanta on Jan. 23, 2011.
And for Stamkos, it capped off a night in which the talented scorer did a lot more than put the puck in the net. In addition to his four points, he registered four hits - including one on Dmitry Kulikov in the offensive zone that led to his second goal in the second period - finished as a plus-three, won 53 percent of his faceoffs and essentially did everything a coach would ask of a superstar player.
“He played 200 feet, he's been doing it since the start of the year,'' Cooper said. “He's had his chances to score, they having been going in, and eventually that pays off. He just has that mindset of playing at both ends of the ice and it's been fun to watch. Not only was he scoring, he was a physical force out there, really dictating where he wanted to be and when he wanted to have the puck. He was fun to watch tonight.''
With Tampa Bay already up 1-0 on the second goal of the season from St. Louis - set up by a cross-crease pass from Stamkos - Stamkos then drove the net to get a step on Erik Gudbranson to redirect a pass from St. Louis at 13:54. Then after Florida made it 2-1 early in third, it was the hit delivered by Stamkos to led to a change in puck possession, which led to a scramble around the Florida net before Stamkos finished off a pass from Matt Carle at 11:39 of the second period.
After Filppula scored twice in a span of 2:36 in the third, Stamkos finished off the night wiring home a pass from Sami Salo for laser one-timer from the circle with 7:35 left in the game, a sight seen many times on NHL Network through the years.
“I got to see those a lot because I got to see the highlights,'' said Filppula, who played his first eight seasons with Detroit. “So I got to see a lot of goals from him and it's pretty much the same thing, but I think seeing him more now, and how well he plays all around, I think that's really impressive and fun to watch.''