TAMPA — The Lightning had just finished a lackluster second period Thursday, and Steven Stamkos wasn't happy.
As he has several times this season, the 25-year-old captain made his voice heard in the locker room at intermission. Everybody listened, then pulled out a 4-2 win over Toronto.
"He let us know we're a better team, we've got to compete harder, win battles," said veteran wing Brenden Morrow, 36, a former Stars captain. "If (speaking up) wasn't something he was comfortable with before, you wouldn't be able to tell now. It's not fake or made up; it's coming from the heart.
"He's not pointing fingers at anyone. He always says, 'It starts with me.' It's not, 'Do what I say, not what I do.' It's 'Do what I say, do what I do.' "
Friday marked the one-year anniversary of Stamkos being named captain. It wasn't how Stamkos would have drawn it up, unexpectedly having to take over from good friend Marty St. Louis, who had forced a trade to the Rangers the day before.
But since Stamkos wore the "C" for the first time March 6, 2014, during warmups for a home game against the Sabres, the All-Star center has made a seamless transition into the role, growing more comfortable speaking up in the room while continuing to lead by example on the ice.
As the Lightning makes a playoff push, Stamkos embraces the responsibility.
"I've always seen myself as a guy who can do that at any level, so I'm definitely comfortable with it," he said. "Obviously, the eyes are on you a little bit more when you wear the 'C.' But as you go along, you get more comfortable with it, and I'm definitely at a stage where I'm comfortable."
That Stamkos is one of the game's top stars, a two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner in his seventh season, gives him cache.
"He's just got a presence about him," said defenseman Mark Barberio. "He's a natural leader."
Coach Jon Cooper said Stamkos respected the hierarchy of the captaincy before getting the job, deferring to St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier before him. Stamkos said he has tried to be a combination of St. Louis and Lecavalier, though neither of them was very vocal.
"Until someone is put in that situation, you don't know how they're going to react," Cooper said. " 'Stammer' has elevated his leadership capabilities. He's more vocal in the room. He's not so over the top that he's a guy that you'd tune out. He picks his spot.
"As time goes on, I think he's recognizing that he himself is the leader, where maybe a year ago, he probably didn't recognize it as much other than it was the letter on his jersey."
Stamkos said he'll never forget the day he was named captain. Besides replacing St. Louis, Stamkos had just been cleared to play after missing 45 games due to a broken leg. Cooper and general manager Steve Yzerman summoned him to the office for a short-and-sweet meeting.
"We wanted to start a fresh page here, a new chapter with our team," Stamkos said. "And I think we've done a good job."
Stamkos makes it clear the Lightning has a "leadership group," with veterans Morrow, former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle, among others, chipping in, which makes it easier on him.
But Stamkos' teammates see how much he puts on his shoulders as the face of the franchise. Boyle is amazed by how Stamkos always stops to sign autographs in the parking lot after practices and games. When Boyle signed a three-year deal in July, Stamkos called to welcome him and his wife, Lauren.
"It's impressive to see, at 25, maturity-wise, with everything," Boyle said. "He's a rare, rare talent. But as a guy, as a person, I feel fortunate to have him in this room leading us."
After games, Stamkos is almost always available at his locker, win or lose, which takes pressure off a young team. In those interviews, Stamkos will send messages to the team, whether it was saying not to be satisfied with getting just one point after an overtime loss in Nashville or calling Sunday's 4-3 loss to the Panthers "unacceptable."
Stamkos has impressed teammates younger and older, including Morrow, who said Stamkos is getting a feel for the pulse of the group, when it needs a kick or something subtle.
"I'm a guy who is going to tell it like it is, for the most part," Stamkos said.
"Obviously, there's certain times where you have to put a positive spin on things or be constructive. But other times, when the truth needs to be told, whether that's keeping myself accountable or keeping my teammates accountable, guys have to be aware that we have to be able to police ourselves in this room."
And Stamkos takes the lead.