VANCOUVER -- Vancouver Canucks goalie Eddie Lack called Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos one of the top three players in the world Saturday morning.
Hours later, Stamkos lived up to the billing.
Stamkos scored on his first two shots and set up Ryan Callahan's go-ahead goal on a 5-on-3 power play late in the second period to lead the Lightning to a 4-2 win against the Canucks at Rogers Arena.
"It shows why he is the best player in the world," Lightning goalie Ben Bishop said after making 30 saves, one-upping Lack's praise for Stamkos.
The scary part for goalies everywhere is Stamkos is still getting better. After missing 45 games last season with a broken leg that now has a 16-inch titanium rod inside, Stamkos is still working his way back to 100 percent. With five goals and seven points through five games, it appears he's getting close as the one-year anniversary of that unfortunate Nov. 11 injury approaches.
Stamkos agrees, though he wasn't pointing to his three points against the Canucks as evidence. Instead he pointed to a failed attempt to complete the hat trick later midway through the first period. Stamkos got behind Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa coming down the left wing and took the puck hard to the net before crashing into Lack and the net.
"That's a play where maybe last year I'm hesitant," he said. "So that's more confidence knowing I have the mindset to take the puck to the net knowing there is going to be contact. Every day is getting better."
The Lightning hope they'll soon be able to say the same thing about top defenseman Victor Hedman, who left midway through the second period Saturday because of an upper-body injury and did not return.
Hedman, who entered play Saturday leading all NHL defensemen with seven points (three goals), appeared to shake out his right hand after blocking a shot on his last shift. He is returning to Tampa for further evaluation and will probably miss the rest of a five-game road trip that continues Monday at the Edmonton Oilers.
"He's one of the best defensemen in the League," he said of the 6-foot-6 Hedman. "It would be tough to lose him the way he's playing."
The 23-year-old Swede was fourth among NHL defenseman with a career-high 55 points last season, and off to a strong start to his sixth season with goals in three of four games. But missing Stamkos for most of last season taught the Lightning to deal with adversity.
"This team is not built around one person," Bishop said. "It's tough. Victor is having a great year, but when someone goes down everybody picked their game up and we were able to shut the door."
Tampa Bay built on its lead when Alex Killorn scored an insurance goal six minutes into the third period.
"It's one of our longest trips of the year and you want to start those off right and tonight was a pretty solid road game," Stamkos said.
Chris Higgins and Alexander Edler scored, and Lack finished with 20 saves in his first start of the regular season for the Canucks, who lost for the first time in four games to start the season.
"I thought we gave this game away," said captain Henrik Sedin, who was held pointless for the first time this season. "We showed on a back-to-back night we can play the best teams. We pushed hard to come back in the game but then we gave them a 5-on-3 and that's where I think the momentum changed."
After watching new No.1 goalie Ryan Miller win Vancouver's first three games (including a 28-save shutout of the Edmonton Oilers on Friday), Lack's first shot in 16 days was against Stamkos on a breakaway 53 seconds into the game. Sent away by Ondrej Palat after the Canucks' top line turned the puck over at the end of a long shift in the offensive zone, Stamkos lifted a quick backhand deke in off the bottom of Lack's outstretched blocker.
"It's funny how the great ones find a way to get into open ice and pucks seem to find their sticks," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "That was pivotal for us because its early in the game, we’re kind of playing in the D-zone and we get the big break and he scores. That took a little air out of Vancouver's tires and set the tone for us."
Higgins tied the game at 7:15 of the first period when he snapped his own rebound past Bishop's left pad after a nice give-and-go off the rush with Nick Bonino. But Stamkos restored the lead 71 seconds later.
Canucks defenseman Dan Hamhuis, playing with a full face shield after getting cut across the nose by an errant stick the night before, whiffed on a clearing attempt behind his net. The loose puck went right to Callahan, who one-handed it through the crease to Stamkos for a backhand between Lack's legs.
"That [first] goal, I kind of felt like I had him and then it kind of just snuck through. He's a great player, probably not the player you want to give a breakaway to at the start, but it was a good goal," Lack said. "The second one, for sure I should have had. It kind of snuck through me and obviously I don't want anything to go through me."
Edler tied the game early the second period on a rush that turned into a power play as it went up the ice, but Vancouver failed to convert three straight power plays in the second period, with Bishop making a couple of good saves on Radim Vrbata's cross-crease one-time shots.
Tampa Bay took the lead again after a lengthy two-man advantage expired late in the period. Stamkos broke his stick on a shot but Vancouver failed to clear as Stamkos skated to the bench to grab a new one, and the Lightning captain skated back into the play and took a pass from former Canucks defenseman Jason Garrison.
Stamkos skated unchecked into the right faceoff circle, waited for Lack to commit to his knees and snapped a cross-crease pass to Callahan for a one-timer into the empty net.
"Brian Boyle gets an assist on that one for getting me my stick on the bench with his long reach," Stamkos said. "[Callahan] found a good spot and that was a big goal."