Coach Jon Cooper joked that you'd have to be on Mars to not know captain Steven Stamkos' contract is up after this season.
Here, in Stamkos' hometown, the self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe, Maple Leafs fans were, as expected, over the moon about the All-Star center, who has dominated conversation before, during and after Tuesday's game against Tampa Bay at the Air Canada Centre.
"I didn't feel that weird — did it feel weird to you guys?" Stamkos told a large media scrum afterwards. "I don't think there was any difference once the puck dropped."
Turns out, the game was the craziest part, the Lightning rallying for a potentially galvanizing 5-4 overtime win over the Maple Leafs to stun a sellout crowd of 18,989.
Tampa Bay (16-13-3), down five injured regulars up front and playing its third game in four nights, battled back from a 3-1 deficit, with Vladislav Namestnikov scoring in overtime to spark its first win when trailing after two periods all season (1-9).
"We showed no quit," Namestnikov said. "That's how good teams play."
And the comeback was fueled by #tampabaycuse, with two goals in 36-second span from Mike Blunden (his first since Jan. 15, 2012) and Jonathan Marchessault, both callups from AHL Syracuse. Another callup, wing Yanni Gourde, making his NHL debut on his 24th birthday, picked up his first career point on the tying goal by fellow birthday boy Blunden, who turned 29.
Stamkos was a minus-1 with just one shot, extending his goal drought to 10 games, his longest since going 11 in his rookie season in 2008.
"Obviously I do have high expectations and (the numbers) are not where I want them to be," Stamkos said. "It's not for a lack of effort."
Cooper pointed out that Stamkos set a screen for defenseman Anton Stralman's goal in the final minute of the second, which pulled Tampa Bay within a goal.
While Stamkos didn't shine during the game, he was still the main attraction.
An Air Canada Centre manager opened a pregame talk with ushers by saying, "You know Steven Stamkos will be starting at center for us next year." A TSN radio station passed out "Sign Stamkos" signs to fans outside the building, though they weren't allowed in because they were from a third party.
One fan made his own sign, "The 'like' was not a mistake, it was destiny," referring to Stamkos' accidental "like" last week of a TSN Twitter post regarding him playing for the Maple Leafs. The sign had a photo that said "Stamkos + Leafs Stanley Cup."
"This is Toronto, this is the hockey Mecca and people want to know," Cooper said. "It's a story."
Stamkos, and the Lightning, got to avoid the media circus thanks to the back-to-back schedule as they were not available until after the game. Stamkos said "time will tell" on his contract, and he's focused on the team, which has won eight of 12.
The fact that neither Stamkos' agents at Newport Sports and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman are talking publicly on negotiations only fuels more speculation.
"I coach the team, not the contracts," Cooper said, "I know he's playing for us now."
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 12 (Namestnikov), 2:59. 2, Toronto, Bozak 5 (van Riemsdyk, Parenteau), 10:40 (pp). 3, Toronto, van Riemsdyk 9 (Bozak, Parenteau), 18:03. Penalties—Gourde, TB (interference), 4:41; Stralman, TB (delay of game), 9:21.
Second Period—4, Toronto, Rielly 4 (Komarov), 11:34. 5, Tampa Bay, Stralman 3 (Kucherov), 19:24. Penalties—Winnik, Tor (hooking), :59; Winnik, Tor (hooking), 8:46; Polak, Tor (tripping), 9:30.
Third Period—6, Tampa Bay, Blunden 1 (Gourde, Sustr), 5:56. 7, Tampa Bay, Marchessault 4 (Killorn, Sustr), 6:32. 8, Toronto, Winnik 3 (Polak, Spaling), 13:28. Penalties—Filppula, TB (hooking), :20.
Overtime—9, Tampa Bay, Namestnikov 6, 2:01. Penalties—None. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 4-10-12-1—27. Toronto 16-8-12-1—37. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 0 of 3; Toronto 1 of 3. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 3-4-0 (37 shots-33 saves). Toronto, Bernier 0-8-2 (27-22). A—18,989 (18,819). T—2:38. Referees—Brad Watson, Wes McCauley. Linesmen—Greg Devorski, Mark Shewchyk.