Stamkos relieved after playoff goal for Lightning

Lightning center Steven Stamkos is relieved his scoring drought is over. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times] 
Lightning center Steven Stamkos is relieved his scoring drought is over. [DIRK SHADD | Times] 
Published May 5, 2015

TAMPA — As Steven Stamkos' recent scoring slump extended for what seemed like eternity — at least to him — the Lightning captain didn't panic.

Sure, it weighed on him, considering the nine-game goal drought (dating to the regular season finale) was his longest since an 11-game stretch as a rookie, Dec. 2-26, 2008. Plus it came in the playoffs, when he was needed the most. Stamkos was asked nearly every day about it, with some speculating he was hurt.

But the Lighting was still winning, which eased the burden. Instead of dissecting video, or taking a couple of hundred extra shots after practice, Stamkos said he took his mind off the game. He'd play "Helicopter," a card game similar to Euchre he and his teammates came up with — and he'd win.

"He didn't let (the slump) affect him on the outside as you'd think it was," center Brian Boyle said.

That being said, you could tell how much relief Stamkos, 25, felt when he scored in Sunday's 6-2 win in Game 2 against Montreal — a highlight-reel, breakaway goal in which he completely fooled MVP finalist Carey Price. As coach Jon Cooper said, it was a big goal at a big moment, putting the Lightning ahead for good.

And the score instantly had a significant impact on Stamkos.

"This game is about confidence," Stamkos said. "You score and all of a sudden, nothing changes, but your legs feel lighter, you feel better with the puck. Things are starting to bounce your way, that's just the way the game goes. When you have that confidence it's not easy to get and it's easy to lose. So when you have it, you keep it as long as you can, and I hope I can do that."

The Lightning proved it can win without Stamkos scoring, going 6-3 in that stretch, which Cooper dubbed a "confidence boost." But if the Lightning hopes to make a deep playoff run, which continues with Wednesday's Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal, Cooper acknowledges it'll need Stamkos to produce. The Lightning is 26-9 when he has a goal.

"He's going to be obviously huge for us going forward in the playoffs," Boyle said. "If we want to do damage, he's going to have to lead the way."

The touted Triplets line, specifically Tyler Johnson, carried the Lightning as it grinded out a seven-game series win over Detroit. But now, with Stamkos scoring and the power play suddenly potent after Sunday's 4-for-8 explosion, could be a seminal moment for Tampa Bay. All of a sudden, it's a more dangerous team.

After all, Stamkos often stirs the drink. In Tampa Bay's 56 wins, including playoffs, Stamkos has 34 goals, 31 assists and is plus-28. In the 35 losses? He had 10 goals, three assists and minus-22.

Stamkos has a ripple effect on the power play. On Nikita Kucherov's first goal Sunday, Stamkos drew two Canadiens to him at the slot, which opened up a passing lane to Johnson, who delivered a cross-zone feed to Kucherov. Stamkos, second in the league with 43 goals in the regular season, continued to focus on the other areas of his game, winning more than 50 percent of faceoffs.

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But, as Boyle says, "it doesn't matter how well he's doing all the other things, he wants to score, and we need him to."

"You keep working hard, you know eventually it's going to pay off," Stamkos said. "Sometimes it takes longer than you want. But as long as you don't cheat the game … which I don't think I have, you get rewarded."

Contact Joe Smith at Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.