TAMPA — Before these playoffs, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos got some key advice from a Hall of Famer.
General manager Steve Yzerman, who won three Stanley Cups as the Red Wings' iconic captain, told Stamkos that the postseason "never goes according to plan."
"Expect the unexpected," Yzerman said. "It takes time to get going. Rely on your teammates to pick up the slack. I said, 'As the captain of the team, just keep plugging right along.' And that's what he's done."
Certainly nobody expected Stamkos to go without a goal the first eight games of the playoffs, sparking heavy scrutiny and speculation the two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner was hurt.
Nobody is saying that now, not after Stamkos has scored in four straight games — tying a franchise playoff record — and seven of his past 10. He's heating up at the right time, his confidence soaring. Stamkos can taste his first trip to the Stanley Cup final, just one win away heading into tonight's Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers. And Stamkos' resiliency is a big reason why.
"I think, for me, it was a great adversity test," Stamkos said. "Our team was winning, which was great. The depth has prevailed all season for our team. But I knew I was playing the right way. When you play the right way, things are going to start going your way. Everything has accumulated to this point right now. When you have confidence, you try to keep it as long as you can, because it is tough to get at this time of year."
Stamkos might not have had a chance to rebound had it not been for the "Triplets" line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, which carried the Lightning through the first two series. Midway through the second round against Montreal, coach Jon Cooper moved Stamkos to right wing, hoping to free him up and save his legs from too much work in the defensive zone. "You've got to really respect the captain for putting the team first," Cooper said. "I think his play has elevated because of it."
With playmaker Valtteri Filppula at center, and power forward Alex Killorn on the other side, the line has "elevated their game to as high of a level as you can play," Cooper said.
Now the Lightning is a two-line team, making it even more dangerous, and that starts with Stamkos.
"The spotlight is on you so often that everybody just expects greatness all the time," Cooper said. "To become great, you do fail sometimes. And he's great. But you don't get there by just success. It's the guys that fight through failure that rise to the top. As this playoff has gone on, Stammer just continues to rise to the occasion."
And Stamkos' scores have come at key times. His first goal gave the Lightning the lead for good in a Game 2 win over Montreal. His third put Tampa Bay up two in a series-clinching 4-1 win against the Canadiens. Stamkos tallied the Lightning's first goal in a 6-5 overtime win in Game 3 against the Rangers. Stamkos' power-play goal in the second period Sunday helped seal the 2-0 win.
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"He's not getting the sixth goal in a 6-2 game," Cooper said. "He's getting the go-ahead goal or the one you build off."
Cooper said little has changed in Stamkos' game, that he was leading the team in shots and chances in the first round series against Detroit, with no luck. Cooper believes Stamkos was putting too much pressure on himself to score, and should have been recognized for his well-rounded game.
"Stammer has always been there, our captain has been leading us — just in different ways," Cooper said. "I'm fired up that he's scoring, because he deserves it. I believe in the hockey karma — you keep working at it, you'll be paid off."