Stamkos prov­ing worth after slow play­off start

Light­ning’s depth big rea­son why pres­sure has been lifted some­what off the cap­tain

Edmonton Journal - - SPORTS - MICHAEL TRAIKOS Wash­ing­ton, D.C. mtraikos@post­media.com twit­ter.com/Michael_Traikos

Steven Stamkos wasn’t scor­ing, but no one was ques­tion­ing his lead­er­ship or call­ing for the C to be ripped off his jer­sey. To be hon­est, no one was re­ally even talk­ing about it.

In­stead, with the Tampa Bay Light­ning for­ward mired in a seven-week slump that be­gan on March 6 and ex­tended all the way into the sec­ond round of the play­offs, the fo­cus turned to how Bray­den Point had emerged as one of the best young play­ers in the NHL, how Nikita Kucherov had added a phys­i­cal di­men­sion to his grow­ing game and how ev­ery­one from J.T. Miller to Yanni Gourde was pro­vid­ing the kind of sec­ondary of­fence needed to win the Stanley Cup.

In other words, if you’re look­ing at why Stamkos chose to re-sign in Tampa Bay and not Toronto two years ago — aside from the state of Florida’s tax breaks and the fact that he can wear shorts to the rink in Jan­uary — this was it.

“I think I saw what ev­ery­one else saw: we have a great core, great own­er­ship, great man­age­ment that’s go­ing to give our team a chance to win ev­ery year,” Stamkos said of his de­ci­sion to sign an eight-year, US$64-mil­lion ex­ten­sion that will keep him in Tampa un­til 2024. “We’ve had this core for a long time now and be­ing so close, los­ing in the fi­nal (in 2015), ev­ery­one had a sense that we’d be a team that would have a chance to win ev­ery year.”

That be­ing said, Stamkos is still look­ing for that elu­sive first Stanley Cup win, hav­ing reached the con­fer­ence fi­nal four times in his 10-year ca­reer. It’s not quite the “14 years of frus­tra­tion” that Light­ning head coach Jon Cooper said Alex Ovechkin has en­dured. But after last year’s face-plant, when Stamkos missed all but 17 games be­cause of a knee in­jury and Tampa Bay fell out of the play­offs, the mo­ti­va­tion is to win now.

“Last year was tough,” said Stamkos, who is 28 years old. “I think we had a little chip on our shoul­der com­ing in and we’ve put our­selves in a po­si­tion to do that again this year. It’s by no means easy to win in this league, but when you have a team like we’ve as­sem­bled over the years, you want to be part of that and you want to be on a team that has a chance to do well in the play­offs.”

Well, not just do well. The pre­sea­son ex­pec­ta­tion was that the Light­ning would reach the fi­nal, if not win the Cup. That ex­pec­ta­tion dou­bled in size at the trade dead­line when the team ac­quired Miller and de­fence­man Ryan McDon­agh from the New York Rangers.

“Of course, you feel it a little bit when your own­er­ship — man­age­ment — goes out and makes some big trades,” said Stamkos. “Ob­vi­ously they ex­pect you to do well and have a play­off run. We ob­vi­ously want to back that up on the ice.”

If Stamkos had been some­times guilty of stand­ing off in the side­lines in the open­ing two rounds — he did have three goals and seven as­sists in a com­bined 10 games — he has been front and cen­tre in the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal. His three goals and five points are the most on the team in the se­ries.

With the Light­ning trail­ing 2-0 in the best-of-seven se­ries to the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals, it was Stamkos who set the tone early in Game 3 by un­cork­ing a one-timer that found a puck­sized tar­get in the far top cor­ner. Kucherov, Point and Vic­tor Hed­man also scored in the 4-2 win.

“We’re in a po­si­tion now where we can win one more game and get back home and re­ally make a se­ries of it,” Stamkos said of the im­por­tance of Game 4 on Thurs­day. “We know which guys want to step up and which guys want to pro­duce at this time of the year and you see when we can do that col­lec­tively as a group we can have a lot of suc­cess.”

For the first half of the sea­son, Stamkos had made a com­pelling ar­gu­ment that the Hart Tro­phy should be shared this year. Head­ing into the all-star game, Kucherov led all scor­ers with 64 points; Stamkos was tied for third with 58.

But as the year wore on and the Light­ning qual­i­fied for the play­offs with al­most a month re­main­ing in the sea­son, Stamkos’ pro­duc­tion be­gan to fade. He went the fi­nal 12 games of the reg­u­lar sea­son with­out a goal and man­aged only one goal in the first seven games of the play­offs.

It wasn’t an is­sue, of course, be­cause the team cruised past the Devils and Bru­ins in five games each. But when the Light­ning stubbed their toe and dropped the first two games at home against the Cap­i­tals, for the first time in the play­offs fin­gers started to point to­ward Tampa Bay’s cap­tain, who was still search­ing for his first even­strength point of the se­ries.

That he was able to an­swer the bell in Game 3 bodes well for the Light­ning, re­gard­less of their depth.

“You need ev­ery­one chip­ping in and it seems at times that those guys have gone quiet in games,” said Cooper. “But the big games when we’ve needed them … those guys put the puck in the net for us. That says a lot right there.”

GETTY IM­AGES

James Neal of the Golden Knights cel­e­brates after scor­ing on the vis­it­ing Win­nipeg Jets dur­ing Game 3 of the West­ern Con­fer­ence Fi­nals on Wed­nes­day night.

NICK WASS/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Tampa Bay Light­ning cen­tre Steven Stamkos is a big rea­son why his team avoided fall­ing into an 0-3 hole Tues­day in Game 3 of the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He scored a goal and added an as­sist in a 4-2 win over the Cap­i­tals.

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