TORONTO — With Sunday's game still in the balance midway through the third period — and the Lightning clinging to a two-goal lead over Columbus — it needed a big penalty kill.
And one of the first players over the boards? Captain Steven Stamkos.
In years past, Stamkos, 26, one of the world's elite goal scorers, would be a spectator in that scenario. But this season, Stamkos has embraced — and earned — a more regular role on the penalty-kill unit. And Stamkos is pretty good at it too, collecting a shorthanded goal, just the third of his career, and assist in Sunday's 4-0 win over Columbus.
"Obviously you want to be out in every situation, but you have to prove it," Stamkos said. "And it's something I've always wanted to do, to be that guy that can be counted in all situations. I was given a chance and had some success in winning faceoffs and making the right reads. And when you do that, you have some confidence. Then you kind of prove to the coaching staff and your teammates that you can do that."
Stamkos isn't a novice at killing penalties, as he saw a career-high 110 minutes, 34 seconds of short-handed ice time in his second season (2009-10). But as Stamkos developed into a two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the league's top goal scorer, he wasn't used as often on the penalty kill.
That changed this season, the final year of Stamkos' contract with the Lightning. He said it was a joint effort, him telling coaches he wanted to do it and them trusting him. While it started small — he averaged 25 seconds of shorthanded time before the All-Star break — he's averaging 1:14 since, including 1:32 Sunday. His 45:16 of overall shorthanded time is just 10 seconds off his second-highest season total set in 2011-12, with 13 games to go.
And Stamkos admits he has enjoyed it more than he thought, liking how he can use his hockey sense — drawing from experience on the power play — to make reads and anticipate an opponent's moves.
"Sometimes when your legs aren't going, you get on the penalty kill and have to move your feet out there, it gets you into the game more," Stamkos said. "Sometimes, when you're not PK'ing, you have a couple penalties in a row, you're sitting on the bench and losing your momentum a little bit. So to get out there, it keeps you fresh. It keeps your mind going, too.
"It's such a part of the game that you have to use your intelligence on the ice and make the right reads. It keeps you going."
Stamkos has formed good chemistry with wing Ondrej Palat, a regular penalty killer, up top on one of the units. The two have combined for three shorthanded goals this season, two Sunday.
"He's good, he's always in shooting lanes, blocking shots," Palat said. "He's doing everything coaches ask him to do."
Associate coach Rick Bowness, who helps run the penalty kill, said he has been impressed with Stamkos' performance. Considering the Lightning is 26th in shorthanded faceoff win percentage (41.3 percent), having Stamkos' 49.3 overall average is a boost; Stamkos has taken more shorthanded draws (61), a career high, than the past two seasons combined (45). Plus Bowness likes Stamkos' reads, angles, use of his stick and pressure, saying it's helped his overall defensive play.
"You think of Steven Stamkos, you think of a power play-type player," coach Jon Cooper said. "But there's more to his game than just that, and you're seeing that in the penalty kill now. He's working hard, he's earning it. You want to have your best players on the ice as much as possible. But you can't be gratuitous at it, and say, 'Well Steven Stamkos, we're going to put him on the ice.' He's been earning every (chance) he's getting."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.