Stamkos proving worth after slow playoff start
Lightning’s depth big reason why pressure has been lifted somewhat off the captain
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.”
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.
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.