TAMPA — For Steven Stamkos, the past 40 days have been as much about the mental aspect of the game as the physical.
Actually, the physical stuff is easy. The Lightning put the rookie center on a crash conditioning program to help him better compete against the NHL's big bodies, and the noticeably more-muscular player reports a 7-pound weight gain on his 6-foot frame to 187 while skating "at a level I didn't know I had."
The bigger hurdle, Stamkos said, was getting over the crushing news he occasionally would be scratched to help facilitate the workout program and give him a chance to, literally, take notes on the game from the press box.
"The worst thing you can hear as a hockey player. So for me, it was keeping the confidence up," Stamkos said.
"I've been working hard off the ice in the gym, and it's starting to pay off. And that's maybe something you don't realize coming in. You think it's going to be a cakewalk, seeing all the young guys in the past coming in."
Stamkos, scratched three times in nine games at one point, plays in his ninth straight game tonight when Tampa Bay faces the Devils at the St. Pete Times Forum. The first overall pick in June has four goals and six points in his past five games, and his hat trick Tuesday against the Blackhawks was the first by a Lightning rookie.
At 19 years, 10 days, he also is the second-youngest player in league history with a natural hat trick (three goals in a row). Bobby Carpenter did it for the Capitals on Feb. 25, 1982, at 18 years, 227 days.
"I'm starting to see my game pick up slowly," said Stamkos, who with 25 points on 10 goals and 15 assists is tied for ninth among rookies. "And it feels great."
Compare that to how he felt Jan. 9 in Anaheim hearing the news he was being scratched for the first time.
"You think you haven't been given the chance or the opportunity you'd like, and now you have to sit a game," Stamkos said. "There was frustration there."
A good night's sleep helped, as did talks with his dad, Chris, and agent, both of whom, Stamkos said, explained, "You have to deal with the cards thrown your way."
There also were sit-downs with veteran teammates Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts and, especially, Marty St. Louis.
"I just told him it might help him to watch there," St. Louis said of the press box. "He might benefit from it. I remember being in that spot, and I didn't want him to lose his confidence, just bounce back from it."
So Stamkos worked out. He took the notes made in the press box and brought them to next-day video sessions with assistant Wes Walz. And he tried his best to disregard those who, especially in the media, said he wasn't ready for the NHL.
"It was a little tough to hear some of the criticism," Stamkos said. "But you know there was a reason you were picked as high as you were. You have the skill set and the work ethic. You know you can play at this level."
And he'll keep getting the chance, coach Rick Tocchet said: "As long as he's not digressing in the weight room. Seeing the fact that he's doing all this work and improving, let's keep on doing it. You have to."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]