Tampa Bay Lightning Steven Stamkos' hot streak highlights his growth as a player

Lightning center Steven Stamkos' hat trick stole the show in Saturday's 5-2 win over the Hurricanes. His special scoring ability is a reason he is one of the game's brightest young stars.

Stamkos is sizzling, having scored 10 goals in his past eight games to give him a league-leading 26. That puts him on pace for a second 50-goal season.

But it was Stamkos' relentless backchecking Saturday that coach Guy Boucher highlighted the most, saying it was a sign of how the center is growing into a complete player.

"He's just a jet out there," Boucher said. "You can see, 'You're not scoring on me.' It's inspiring."

As good as Stamkos was in his first three seasons, he said after signing a five-year, $37.5 million contract extension last summer he was determined to further develop his game in his fourth. And as the Lightning hits the midseason mark on a three-game road trip, which starts tonight in Stamkos' hometown, Toronto against the Maple Leafs, the 21-year-old is playing some of his best hockey.

"I find that he's made a difference just as much when he didn't have the puck as when he's had the puck," Boucher said. "And that's a mark of somebody who is becoming more of a winner than a star."

Stamkos has worked to improve his faceoffs; he has won 45.9 percent. He is becoming more aware in the defensive zone and welcoming opportunities on the penalty kill. Stamkos said the frustrating stretch to end last season — he scored seven goals in his final 32 regular-season games — taught him a lot.

"I want to be one of the top players in the game, and you have to look at those guys and how consistent they are," said Stamkos, named the NHL's star of the week for taking the goal-scoring lead with six goals in the Lightning's three straight wins.

"It's just focusing on the details. When things aren't going well, you tend to want to cheat to create offensive chances when it should be the other way around. When things aren't going well, you get back to playing solid defensive hockey, which leads to your chances."

Stamkos has found different ways to score as teams have adjusted to him. He hasn't had as many one-timers from the circle on the power play, and he has just five power-play goals, as opposed to his 51-goal season in 2009-10, when he had 24. Stamkos is driving to the net, scoring on deflections and rebounds.

When asked if it was too soon to call Stamkos a complete player, Boucher smiled, then lowered his voice as if his All-Star could hear him.

"We don't want to make a guy feel like he's there," Boucher said. "Oh, he's getting there, he's getting there."

MISCELLANY: Defenseman Victor Hedman (concussion) is not on the road trip.

Tonight

Lightning

at Maple Leafs

When/where: 7; Air Canada Centre, Toronto

TV/radio: Sun Sports; 970-AM

Key stats: Expect Lightning G Mathieu Garon, who has won three consecutive starts, to start. … C Nate Thompson (lower body), who has missed five games, could return. … Toronto had the third-best power play in the league entering Monday (20.3 percent) and the worst penalty kill (72.3 percent). … Tampa Bay is 5-0-2 in Toronto since losing Dec. 10, 2007.

Tampa Bay Lightning Steven Stamkos' hot streak highlights his growth as a player 01/02/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 2, 2012 9:13pm]

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