TAMPA — Time has changed the man. It has dinged his body and dulled his stats. It has reduced his role and reshaped his game.
Yet through all the changes, all the rehabs, all the minor indignities that are part of a superstar inevitably growing older, there are some things that never seem to fluctuate.
For instance, the pride and drive of Steven Stamkos?
Oh, yeah, they’re still intact.
If you ever had any doubts about that, the opening minutes of Tampa Bay’s 8-0 victory in Game 5 on Monday night should have convinced you otherwise. Less than 48 hours after sitting out much of the third period in the Game 4 loss to the Islanders in New York, Stamkos was flying around the Amalie Arena ice as if he were the teenager you recall from so many years ago.
He scored a goal 45 seconds into the game, set up Tampa Bay’s third goal with a takeaway in the neutral zone, scored a power-play goal in the second period and added an assist in the third.
“Stammer has played well. People just get this blanket, ‘Hey, if Stamkos isn’t scoring, he’s not contributing.’ It’s just not the case,” said coach Jon Cooper. “It’s hard to score in this league and he’s done it better than almost anybody in his generation. So I don’t think he should be fully judged on, ‘Oh, if he doesn’t score he’s not playing well.’ He’s contributing.”
Earlier in the day, Cooper had said Stamkos always delivers when the Lightning need him and that was true Monday night.
It’s odd considering they won the Stanley Cup a year ago, but this might have been the most crucial game the Lightning have played in the last two postseasons. It was the first time Tampa Bay was in danger of falling behind going into a Game 6, and so the quick lead was critical.
“It was just a matter of time,” Cooper said. “You’re not going to hold those guys down forever. For them to score on the first shift and just build off that, we knew it was coming. It was great to see, and they were pretty fired up.”
This was Stamkos playing whatever role was required of him in Game 5. After Jan Rutta quickly gained control of an Islander chip-in during the game’s first minute, he pushed the puck to Alex Killorn, who passed to Anthony Cirelli, who moved it to Stamkos.
Stamkos had room on the left side of the ice for a shot, but instead passed back to Killorn and began skating toward the net. Killorn’s shot was blocked by Adam Pelech, and the puck bounced right in front of Stamkos.
“He was feeling it,” said Brayden Point, who became only the second player in NHL history to score in eight consecutive playoff games with a third-period goal. “And when he’s feeling it, good things happen.”
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Stamkos, 31, had barely been visible through the first four games of the New York series. He had a total of five shots on goal, and was 13th on the team in average ice time. Five minutes into the third period of Game 4, Stamkos was spending extra time on the bench while Yanni Gourde was skating extra shifts with Killorn and Cirelli.
Having missed most of the 2020 playoffs with a core injury, and having sat out the final month of the 2021 regular season with a lower body injury, it seemed at least reasonable to wonder if Stamkos wasn’t hurting again.
If so, the Lightning captain wasn’t offering any details.
“Good enough to play,” Stamkos grinned when asked how he was feeling Monday morning.
Pressed about it a few minutes later, the Lightning captain again demurred.
“I’m not going to get into that sort of stuff,” Stamkos said. “I’m out there just like everyone else trying our hardest to win every night. At this time of the year you can go through so many different things that guys are battling through. That’s why it’s the toughest trophy in sports to win. If the guys are on the ice, that means they’re good enough to go out there and help our team win.”
For all his success as a goal scorer in the regular season, Stamkos has never had a monster postseason. When the Lightning reached the Stanley Cup final in 2015, he was fifth on the team with seven goals in the playoffs. And then he missed nearly the entire postseason in 2020.
With his two goals and assist in Game 5 on Monday, Stamkos has tied his postseason high with seven goals and is averaging a point per game for the first time during an extended playoff run.
“Tonight, he started shooting the puck. He wanted it,” Cooper said. “He was determined tonight, and good for him.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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