The Vancouver Canucks were already praising Steven Stamkos hours before they faced the Tampa Bay Lightning star on the ice.
Stamkos scored on a breakaway on the Lightning’s first shot as part of a two-goal performance and Tampa Bay beat Vancouver 4-2 on Saturday night to hand the Canucks their first loss of the season.
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Canucks backup goalie Eddie Lack, who earlier Saturday called Stamkos one the three best players in the world, could only watch as Tampa Bay’s captain slipped a backhander past him just 53 seconds into the game.
"I kind of felt like I had him, and then it kind of just snuck through," Lack said after making 20 saves. "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."
The Canucks actually had sustained pressure in the Tampa Bay zone before the goal, but a turnover by Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin led to Stamkos’ opener.
"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 it’s early in the game. We’re kind of playing in the (defensive) 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."
Stamkos also had an assist, Ben Bishop made 30 saves, Ryan Callahan added a goal and an assist for Tampa Bay (3-1-1), and Alex Killhorn also scored. Ondrej Palat had two assists.
Chris Higgins and Alexander Edler scored for Vancouver (3-1), the last NHL team to lose this season.
Vancouver opened with two wins against Edmonton — including Friday night’s road victory — and one over Calgary, but ran into trouble against one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams.
It wasn’t all good news for the Lightning as standout defenseman Victor Hedman was injured midway through the second period and is being sent home to be re-evaluated.
"That’s a big loss. He’s playing so well and he’s a horse for us," said Stamkos, who broke his leg last season. "That just shows the character on this team. We’ve dealt with injuries and adversity before and come out on top."
The Canucks had a home sellout streak snapped at 474 games. The previous non-sellout in Vancouver was Nov. 12, 2002.
Down 2-1 after 20 minutes, the Canucks tied it 2:42 into the second when Edler took a pass from Daniel Sedin off the rush on a power play and ripped a shot past Bishop for his first goal.
After Vancouver failed to score on three straight power plays later in the period, the Lightning retook the lead at 16:48 just after a 5-on-3 advantage expired. Stamkos shattered his stick on a one-timer, went to the bench to pick up a new one, and promptly fed Callahan, who scored his third goal past a helpless Lack.
Tampa Bay stretched its lead to 4-2 at 6:04 of the third when Lack made a great save off Tyler Johnson in front, only to have Killhorn shovel in the rebound for his second.
Vancouver had a chance to get closer on a power play midway through the third, but Bishop scrambled to keep a shot out that deflected off a skate in front before hitting the post.
Lack made his first start of the season in place of Ryan Miller, but Canucks coach Willie Desjardins had no problem with his goalie’s performance.
"Stamkos right off the start on a breakaway is a tough way to start," Desjardins said. "He’s got a great attitude, and I have no worry about Eddie Lack. He’s a real good goaltender, and I’ve got lots of confidence in him."
Palat jumped on a turnover by Canucks captain Henrik Sedin in the neutral zone and found a streaking Stamkos, who beat Lack with a slick backhand on the first shot the goalie faced this season just 53 seconds in.
The Canucks were looking to open with four consecutive wins for the first time since 1992. They got even when Higgins followed his own rebound and scored his first goal at 7:15.
But Stamkos netted his second of the night and fifth of the season just 1:11 later.
NOTES: The Canucks will start a three-game trip on Tuesday against Dallas. … The Lightning will continue their five-game trip on Monday against Edmonton. Hedman is expected to miss the rest of the trip. … The Canucks will visit the Lightning in their only other meeting on Jan. 20. … Vancouver D Ryan Stanton sat out after sustaining an injury in Friday’s game. Yannick Weber took his spot in the lineup.