Steven Stamkos might be playing his best hockey

A balance between goals, assists has the Lightning captain apparently playing with more confidence
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91), seen celebrating his Dec. 10 hat trick, is playing some of his best hockey.[DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91), seen celebrating his Dec. 10 hat trick, is playing some of his best hockey.[DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published January 24
Updated January 24

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Steven Stamkos in a give-and-go is a scary thing, no matter who joins him on the rush.

Even more than most players, the Lightning center can do major damage whether he takes the shot or dishes it out.

And he has an uncanny sense on making that choice.

“Probably back in the day, guys liked playing with him because he’s going to finish it,” Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde said. “Now, guys like playing with him because you have give-and-goes, you’re going to get it back.”

It doesn’t always have to be a give-and-go. Sometimes it’s just in the course of the play. When the Lightning beat Dallas 2-1 on Jan. 15, Stamkos demonstrated just why a goalie can’t assume.

He entered the zone with speed and with Ondrej Palat on his wing, a couple of steps behind. Stamkos skated through three Stars and pulled the puck around his body, giving himself both a shooting lane and a passing lane. Goaltender Anton Khudobin shifted toward Stamkos, but he backhanded the puck over to Palat instead. Palat scored before Khudobin could get back in position.

That play is just one of the 57 reasons why 28-year-old Stamkos will play in his sixth NHL All-Star Game this weekend at San Jose’s SAP Center.

His 57 points put Stamkos on pace for a 95-point season, which would be his highest since that 60-goal season at age 22.

Stamkos started out as a known goal scorer, but he’s made a conscious effort to become more of a playmaker in the last year or two.

It helped that last season he played with winger Nikita Kucherov, who started the year on a tear as a scorer. Kucherov suggested that took some attention away from Stamkos’ own scoring. Now, on separate lines but the same power play, Stamkos has found a balance. His scoring is almost evenly split between goals and assists.

When the season started, some wondered if Stamkos had peaked and would even reach 25 goals on the year. He has 26, one short of his total all of last year.

Even more impressive, he’s produced most of his scoring in the latter half of the team’s games. On Dec. 1, Stamkos had eight goals. He was 57th in the league with 22 points. Now, Stamkos is 14th in the NHL, having scored a career-high 14 goals in December and four more in January. He’s also in the midst of a six-game streak of at least one assist.

“You play this game long enough, you go through streaks like this,” Stamkos said. “You go through streaks the other way too, where things never seem to go right. You just try to ride this as long as you can. It’s a fun feeling but for me, it’s just trying to put myself in some areas to get pucks and really good looks.”

So, what’s different?

Stamkos knows why people ask about his knee, but said there’s no difference in how it feels from the beginning of the year to now. He broke his right leg in 2013 and then tore his meniscus in the right knee in November of 2016. This is first fully healthy season in years.

When he first came back last season, he thought about the knee and trying to protect it, but now he feels he can do whatever he needs to make the play.

Stamkos has found a “new normal,” adjusting to his pain management and “stiff management.” Sometimes that means a longer warmup or cool down. Some days it hurts walking down the stairs in the morning, but he knows how to adjust before he gets on the ice.

“It is what it is,” he said. “Some days you’re a little stiff, some days you’re a little sore, it’s just the reality of this league. When things are going well, everyone is like, ‘You must be feeling great.’ Well, I feel the same, you might just be playing better. It’s not necessarily a health thing.”

Coach Jon Cooper said to some extent the difference comes down to shooting more (10 shots on goal against Toronto last week) and also confidence. Even when Stamkos doesn’t score (like against Toronto last week), getting good looks can build that confidence for a player who knows he can score.

Lalonde said the same, allowing that it sounds crazy to say confidence is a difference-maker for a world-class player like Stamkos.

“He’s evolved over the last few years, just using other people and his vision and seeing plays,” Lalonde said. “When you have that shot, we’re even like ‘shoot, shoot, oh, nice pass.’ ”

It’s that balance of dishing it out and attacking the net that is making Stamkos so dangerous and that has elevated his game to new heights this season.

When it comes down to it, Stamkos is just having fun.

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