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Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos says playoff debut against Pittsburgh Penguins taught him to compete harder

PITTSBURGH — As teachable moments go, the one Steven Stamkos endured Wednesday was difficult.

He was crushed into the boards early by Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, had one shot on goal and four shots total, and had his streak of futility reach five goals in 29 games.

Then again, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal was Stamkos' first NHL playoff game, so bumps were expected. The education? That, the Lightning center said, came in a situation you cannot fully appreciate until you're immersed in it.

"You learn how much different the game is in the playoffs than the regular season," Stamkos, 21, said Thursday. "You may be competing hard, but it's not hard enough in playoff hockey. That's something I learned and will address."

How strange to be where we are with Stamkos.

He was so dominant in the regular season, with 40 goals in his first 54 games, that he was being included with Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as one of the league's top players. Now he is trying to find his way at a time when, as the league's No. 2 goal scorer with 45, his team needs him most.

That is why games like Wednesday's 3-0 loss irk, and why Game 2 tonight at the Consol Energy Center is another chance to regain his touch.

"At the end of the day, you look for your top guys to score," Stamkos said. "When we get shut out, we didn't do our job. So, yeah, you need that pressure on yourself and pressure from teammates to expect that from you."

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma praised his defense for maintaining a close gap on Stamkos that in Game 1 denied him time and speed.

Then there was Orpik's board-rattling hit.

"Maybe," Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek said, "that slowed him down for the rest of the game."

But Stamkos does not have a reputation of being intimidated.

"I've been hit like that before," he said. "You have to take hits to make a play, and we actually got the puck and got a shot off. But I knew it was coming. I've played against him for three years now. He's one of the hardest-hitting guys in the league. It's a clean hit, and it was a good way to start the game for them, I guess."

Where does Stamkos go from here? The challenge will not get easier. Stamkos is no longer a surprise. Opponents have studied his game. He faces top defensemen and forwards.

And it is the playoffs, after all, where checking is tighter and tougher, and the margin for error slimmer.

Stamkos has weapons of his own. As linemate Steve Downie said, "He's got an unbelievable shot."

But Stamkos has just 10 shots on goal in his past seven games.

"Your compete level has to rise," he said, "and that's something that for me, personally, is going to be a lot stronger in Game 2. I can tell you that for sure, go to the front of the net and fight for space. There's so little time, with everyone knowing the magnitude of the game, you have to compete even harder."

"The kid has character," coach Guy Boucher said. "And what I like about him is he's very honest. He's certainly humble enough to say he's got a lot to learn."

Tonight's class begins at 7.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos says playoff debut against Pittsburgh Penguins taught him to compete harder 04/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 15, 2011 12:00am]

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