ST. LOUIS — As he skated off the ice for the final time during the Lightning’s 4-2 win over the Blues on Saturday night, Steven Stamkos leaned over the railing in mental exhaustion, trying to wrap his head around all the scoring chances he had had that refused to find the back of the net.
Stamkos has been patient for the past month as he has come within striking distance of his 500th career goal. But after Saturday, he has to be wondering what he did to upset the hockey gods.
The Lightning (27-13-1) were focused on the task at hand Saturday, opening their season-long five-game road trip with a victory, taking a 2-1 first-period lead and protecting it with a shutdown third period reminiscent of their previous three seasons.
But you couldn’t help but have your eyes focused on Stamkos, who on Dec. 14 was three goals away from becoming the third active player, and the 47th player in NHL history, to reach 500 goals. He got No. 499 on Thursday night against the Canucks.
Stamkos had 11 shot attempts Saturday, many that he would have converted on a normal night. But it’s clear his pursuit of No. 500 has been anything put ordinary.
Stamkos had three scoring chances in succession on a power play in the second period: on his patented one-timer from the left circle, a drive to the net from the slot, and a diving rebound attempt that followed. But he came up empty each time.
His best attempt — and his most painful miss — was when Nikita Kucherov fed him a pass in front of an open net and his wrister from the left hash pinged off the near post.
When the Blues pulled goaltender Jordan Binnington for an extra attacker in the final three minutes, Kucherov set up Stamkos for two scoring chances with an empty net in front of him, but Stamkos fanned on one and hit an opponent’s stick on the other.
“He was all over it,” said center Brayden Point, who scored two goals and had an assist. “He had some great looks; he played extremely well. The goalie made some good saves, and sometimes the puck just doesn’t want to go in.
“We’re all cheering for (Stamkos), but knowing ‘Stammer,’ it’s not going to take too many more games.”
The Lightning have been average on the road this season, entering Saturday with a 9-9-0 record away from Amalie Arena. Coach Jon Cooper has made clear the importance of this trip, which takes them next to Seattle and western Canada.
The Lightning struggled to put away their opponents in their previous two games — home wins over Columbus and Vancouver — allowing two third-period goals in both games. And it was clear that part of those lapses was Stamkos’ teammates trying to help him reach his milestone.
But on Saturday, the Lightning protected a two-goal lead at 4-2 in the third, holding the Blues to two scoring chances in the period, all while playing short a defenseman after rookie Nick Perbix was sidelined following a hit against the boards from Blues forward Tyler Pitlick late in the second period.
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“(Protecting the lead) was a definite point of emphasis going into that period, and I thought we did an exceptional job,” Cooper said. “I thought we played pretty responsible, didn’t give too much, didn’t have to raise the heart rate too much, as opposed to the last two games.”
The Lightning killed off an early third-period penalty, capping a 3-for-3 night for the penalty kill. Midway through the third-period kill, Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev swatted away a puck that had leaked past goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (23 saves) and crept toward the goal line.
“You got to be comfortable in playing with one-goal leads, two-goal leads going into the third, and we’re another team that we’ve adopted that a few years ago,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “It’s about not playing hesitant. It’s about playing your style but don’t give any freebies, make them work for their chances. So (Saturday) was a good example of how we want it to look.”
The Lightning took a 2-1 lead on a Point power-play goal with 3:17 left in the first period, Point’s second goal of the night. Stamkos had two Blues skaters coming to him at the left circle, and he found Point across the slot for an open back-door look for his team-high 25th goal of the season.
Before exiting the game, Perbix assisted on Point’s first goal and gave Tampa Bay a 3-1 lead with his fourth goal of the season with 7:16 left in the second. After the game, Cooper said the team kept Perbix out as a precaution.
“He got hit pretty good there, but I don’t perceive this to be a long-term thing,” Cooper said.
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