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Tampa Bay Lightning: Early Toronto homecoming for rookie Stamkos

TORONTO — Lightning center Steven Stamkos said today will be "just another day at the rink."

Even so, the 18-year-old may never have another like it.

Consider Stamkos, who grew up in the Toronto suburb of Unionville idolizing the Maple Leafs, faces that team for the first time at the Air Canada Centre.

Stamkos' father, Chris, said at least 50 family and friends will be there, and Stamkos said the whole thing is "pretty special."

But with the celebration will be questions.

Last summer's No. 1 draft choice has zero points in seven games. And though he averaged 13:08 of ice time his past three games, he is averaging 11:09 for the season, 44th among NHL rookies entering Monday.

It's like chum in the water for Toronto's media.

"Steven is a pro now. The press is part of the game," coach Barry Melrose said. "He has to learn how to handle the press. We'll protect him as much as we can. But he's going to have to be there."

"The Canadian media find every little thing to write about. It's hockey, hockey, hockey there," Stamkos said. "Obviously, it's going to be brought up with regards to ice time and stuff like that. The main thing is the team first. It's a long process. Hopefully, we can start going soon."

Stamkos has had three games in which he played fewer than 10 minutes, including 6:05 on Oct. 11 against the Hurricanes.

He does not kill penalties and loses ice time when the Lightning begins its all-too-common parade to the penalty box. Until recently, he also was watching the power play instead of playing on it.

Getting on the second unit has provided scoring chances, and Stamkos has 11 shots on goal in his past three games.

"Everyone is so worked up about Steven, but he's getting his chances," Melrose said. "If he wasn't getting chances, then you have to start worrying. He's carrying the puck and moving it and looking quick."

"I just have to keep getting pucks to the net," Stamkos said. "One of them is going to go in, and hopefully, the flood gates open after that. Hopefully, the same thing happens to the team."

It is more likely to happen for Stamkos now that he says he better understands what it takes to play in the NHL. Not that he expected it to be easy. But Stamkos, who made the jump from juniors, said it still has required a "mental adjustment."

"In junior, at Sarnia, you're the guy, and you're playing 25 minutes every night, and if you make a mistake, you're going to be on the ice anyway," he said. "Here, you've got to earn your ice and prove to the coaching staff that you can produce at this level. I need to prove myself, and hopefully I can be the guy they can depend on to get a goal or something like that."

"He'll take it as a challenge," Sarnia coach Dave MacQueen said. "He's such a quality kid, this is going to make him stronger and better."

He will be fortified after a home-cooked meal of steak and shrimp, and advice from Melrose about dealing with the media.

"Just have fun with it," Melrose said. "Don't get worked up about it. Don't take it personal. He's a great kid. I'm sure he'll do well."

It is, after all, just another day at the rink.

>>tonight

Lightning at Maple Leafs

When/where: 7:30; Air Canada Centre, Toronto

Radio: 620-AM

Injuries: Tampa Bay — LW Radim Vrbata (groin) is out; C Ryan Craig (groin) is day to day. Toronto — None.

Key stats: The Lightning has lost six straight games in Toronto, one in overtime, and is 1-9-2 there since 2001-02. … Tampa Bay's power play entered Monday the league's second-worst, at 9.4 percent (3-for-32). … Toronto D Luke Schenn is averaging 21:24 of ice time, second among rookies.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Early Toronto homecoming for rookie Stamkos 10/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 6:56pm]
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