Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Steven Stamkos deals well with great expectations

TAMPA

At the beginning of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Steven Stamkos started to collect goals … and adjectives.

He was terrific, all right? He was fast, and he was skilled, and he was dangerous. He was tough, and he was combative, and he was explosive. In the biggest of games, Stamkos was the biggest of stars.

And now, what are we to expect?

More.

Tonight in Game 2 against the Canadiens, Stamkos has to stand a little taller. Tonight, he has to reach a little deeper. After all, this is his team, and this is his time. Who else do you expect to be there in the crucial moments late in the game? Where else would you rather have the puck but on his stick? Who else would you trust to tie this series with a single shot?

This is what it is like to be Stamkos. No matter what level of wondrous he has been, the next night his team is going to expect it again.

And again.

"I'm not satisfied unless we win," Stamkos said Thursday, standing in a corridor outside the team's locker room. "I'd trade personal success for team success. It would still be a story if I wasn't producing, but we were winning.

"It's not just me. Collectively we aren't going far as a team if just one player is playing well. We weren't satisfied with our effort (in Wednesday's 5-4 overtime loss in Game 1). The more we watch the tape, the more we see things that we can improve on."

What can Stamkos do better? After all, he scored two goals in Game 1, one on a great shot from the right wing, one on a perfect pass from Alex Killorn. He was prepared to mix it up with Montreal's Andrei Markov in defense of teammate Ondrej Palat.

Tonight? Maybe there is another pass he can make. Maybe there is another hit he can make. Maybe there is an even bigger goal he can score.

Something. Anything.

"When you carry the name Steven Stamkos, you probably have a little extra obligation," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "The standard is a little higher than probably your everyday player. There are a handful of players who have a name that weighs as much as Steven Stamkos'. He didn't ask for that. He made that name for himself in the way he plays.

"If it's a situation where he thinks he's played less than that, it's because he has set the bar so high, it becomes expected of him. That's what makes it tougher for him. Now you've got to play at such an elite level that the second you slip up and play like a mere mortal, it looks like you're not on top of your game. That's tough for him, but it's why he's a superstar."

And so Stamkos, like so many of the other Lightning players, looks for a little bit more going into this game. Anders Lindback has the same search going on. So does Victor Hedman. So do most of the Lightning defenders.

But the great ones are the same. They yearn to be the difference-makers in the bigger games. They want the puck to come to them. They want to put their team over the top.

"Let's not kid ourselves," Stamkos said. "We definitely want this next game. We don't want to go into Montreal in a hole. Hopefully we learned our lessons in Game 1."

Stamkos seems older than his 24 years. There is a perspective to him, a wisdom. There is a reason Cooper says he has blossomed as a leader since inheriting the captain's role after Marty St. Louis was traded in March.

Stamkos shrugged. To him, hockey isn't that different while wearing the "C." He always stood up for teammates before. He always had time to help them with a tip here or there. He always took his role as a leader seriously.

"I've tried not to change too much," Stamkos said. "Sometimes when you do have the letter on your jersey, you overthink it. I've tried not to do that. I've tried to learn from past guys we've had who have been great leaders, and from guys we still have who are great leaders.

"There are more eyes on you. People expect you to be composed in all situations. I've had to rein in my emotions in certain situations. But I haven't had to do too much that I haven't done before."

For Stamkos, it has been an uneven year. He missed 45 games with a broken leg, then spent several weeks trying to chase his former self. Even now he will tell you his leg isn't 100 percent. But it is closer, and these days, he looks like a more comfortable player.

"I don't think I'm to the level I was at before the injury yet," he said. "The goal for me is to feel more confident and comfortable every time I'm on the ice, but it's still going to take a summer of hard training to get the strength back to where it was before."

Even now, however, Stamkos is the most essential member of the Lightning. Even now he is the player other players look to in the most important moments.

Teammate Tyler Johnson was asked Thursday if there are ever times he marvels at the skills that Stamkos has. "Every shift," Johnson said.

The thing is, the Lightning needs him on every one of them. They need every drop of sweat, every ounce of effort.

Tonight, more than ever.

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