Saturday, February 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Steven Stamkos still at center of Lightning's playoff hopes

TAMPA — On Monday morning, just like every game-day morning for the Lightning, a mob armed with cameras, microphones, tape recorders and notebooks gathered around the locker of captain Steven Stamkos.

And, for the next 15 minutes or so, Stamkos, still sweating from the morning skate, answered questions from the local and Toronto media.

But this time, unlike most times when the Maple Leafs are the opponent, there were no questions about free agency, no questions about contract negotiations, no questions about whether he will wear a lightning bolt or a maple leaf on his sweater next season.

This session was strictly about the here and now. Here being Tampa Bay. Now being one final push to the playoffs. And, naturally, at the center of the here and now is Stamkos. It's always Stamkos.

You know, the best hockey player on the team. Still.

Once again, Stamkos leads the Lightning in goals. Once again, Stamkos is among the leading goal scorers in the NHL. Once again, he's on his way to another 40-goal season.

"You can pretty much circle his name," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, "and say, 'I don't know how he's going to do it, but he's going to have 40-plus goals again.' And you'll take that any day of the week, especially in a day and age where getting 40 is kind of like it used to be to get 50."

Maybe it was all the contract talk. Maybe it was all the Toronto rumors. Maybe it was a couple of uncharacteristic scoring droughts. But as the Lightning has plodded through this up-and-down season, this just hasn't felt like a typical Stamkos type of season.

Something seemed off. It just felt like he wasn't having a good year.

He went through a 10-game scoreless drought in late November and into December — the longest of his career since an 11-game slump as a rookie. He had one goal in a 10-game stretch in January and February. He had a five-game drought back in October. Goal scorers can be streaky and Stamkos is not immune to such streaks. But those slumps were magnified when the Lightning couldn't find a consistent winning pace.

But here we are with six games left, the Lightning is in good playoff shape and Stamkos has 36 goals, which was fourth in the league going into Monday night. He had two assists in Monday's 3-0 victory.

"So, if you're judging on that, he's going to have another solid Steven Stamkos year where he's one of the leading goal scorers in the league like he is every year," Cooper said. "And that's what you're looking for from your guy."

Their guy gave the Lightning exactly what it needed. It went from a borderline playoff team to a comfortable spot over the past several weeks and Stamkos has been the key reason. During a crucial nine-game win streak that catapulted the Lightning back into Atlantic Division contention, Stamkos had seven goals.

He came into Monday with goals in three straight games, seven goals in the previous seven games and 15 goals in the previous 22 games. At one point this season, we wondered if he could reach 30. Now, he likely will get 40.

Not that Stamkos is counting.

"Numbers are numbers," Stamkos said. "It's something that at the end of the year you can look back and say, 'Yeah, I scored 50' or 'I scored 40 and that's great.' But at the end of the day, I've learned through my career that you want to win. That's the thing. You want to get in the playoffs and put up numbers to help your team win in the playoffs."

Still, even Stamkos knows that it just looks better to end up with 40-plus goals, especially when only a handful (maybe) will hit that mark.

"I'll finish as strong as I can these last few games and it's definitely something I'll be proud of, the way I played the last couple of months in comparison to the beginning of the season, for sure," Stamkos said. "This is when you want to playing your good hockey."

What's the reason for his late rally? Some might to point to late February when Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman publicly said Stamkos would not be traded despite his impending free agency. Maybe that had a little to do with it. And, maybe, the Lightning getting healthy as a team made everyone better, including Stamkos.

But let's not make this too complicated. Stamkos started scoring because that's what goalscorers do. That's what Stamkos does.

He's also too classy to make excuses. He never complained when the lines were shuffled and he was left playing with unfamiliar linemates.

"You have to find a way regardless of the situation," Stamkos said.

He also never bellyached when he has been moved from his natural center position to right wing though he prefers center. He was shifted to the wing again Monday night.

"I've played that position multiple times before in the past, so it's not an issue for me," Stamkos said. "Hopefully I can maintain the level of play I've had lately. I feel good. I feel confident and the results are coming."

Who knows what will happen this summer? Maybe he will leave. Maybe he will stay. That's for later.

Right now is all about the here and now. Stammer time.

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