VANCOUVER — Steven Stamkos knew his 500th goal was coming, but he just didn’t know when, and that was the tough part.
His pursuit of history tested his patience, and also that of his teammates, who wanted him to reach the milestone just as much as he did.
Stamkos, 14 seasons deep into his NHL career, knows you can’t script these moments. He certainly would have liked to have done it a few games earlier and back home in Tampa. But his storybook chapter of joining hockey’s elite goal-scoring club — tallying No. 500 early on, celebrating on the ice with his teammates while feeling the love from an appreciative Vancouver crowd and ending the night with a hat trick in a 5-2 Lightning win over the Canucks — would certainly suffice.
“That’s a game that you’re going to remember for forever,” said Stamkos after the game, sitting at his stall while clutching the 500th goal puck in his left hand. “So to do that and to have that story to tell for years to come, it’s pretty special.”
Stamkos became the 47th player in NHL history to score 500 goals and the third active player, joining the elite company of the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby. He also is the 23rd player to score 500 goals with one franchise.
He became the eighth player in league history to record a hat trick in their 500th-goal game, and the first since Mats Sundin in 2006.
Stamkos came within three goals of the milestone more than a month ago — Dec. 13 at home against Seattle — but since had struggled to score despite his best efforts and those of everyone around him. After scoring No. 499 against the Canucks at home last Thursday, he’s had many scoring changes in the past two games on the road. His teammates constantly looked to set him up, but nothing went in.
“If you’ve watched any of our last couple games, I don’t think anybody was shooting a puck at a net if Stamkos was on the ice,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It can be stressful when you’re getting close to those milestones. Stammer was positive and talking all the team stuff, but I know it wears on you and the anticipation of that big moment. You want to do that at home, but the fact that he got to do it in his home country and everybody here was extremely appreciative of the goal, just a great moment.”
No. 500 came early on Wednesday night at Rogers Arena, just 4:40 into the first period on Stamkos’ second shift of the night.
After Anthony Cirelli brought the puck into the offensive zone but slipped, Alex Killorn recovered it and made a nifty toe drag move past Canucks forward Ilya Mikheyev through the the left circle. Killorn found Stamkos all alone camped at the far post for a tap-in past Canucks goaltender Spencer Martin.
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After Stamkos scored, he was first bear hugged by Zach Bogosian, then Killorn, and disappeared momentarily as his entire team emptied the bench to celebrate on the ice, something the Lightning had to receive league approval to do, just as they did following Stamkos’ 1,000th career point in Philadelphia on Dec. 1.
Before he joined the celebration, Corey Perry made a beeline to the net and scooped up the puck as the crowd gave Stamkos a standing ovation. After Stamkos emerged from the pack, he raised his stick to acknowledge the fans as he circled around center ice.
“That was pretty amazing,” Stamkos said of the crowd’s reaction. “That’s something as a player that sticks with you for a long time when you’re on the road and you get that type of reception.”
The goal seemed to allow the Lightning to exhale, and Tampa Bay poured it on in a four-goal first period. Among the flurry, Stamkos hardly had to wait for goal No. 501, which came with 5:25 left in the period and gave the Lightning a 4-0 lead. He added No. 502, an empty-netter, with 1:22 left in the game.
The second tally gave Stamkos his 13th career 20-goal season, which passed Vinny Lecavalier for the most in team history. He ended the night with his 11th career hat trick, tying for seventh-most among active players.
Stamkos’ teammates had worked diligently to get him the puck over the past month, and he had had many chances to score in the previous few games.
In the final minute of the Lightning’s win Monday afternoon in Seattle, Victor Hedman looked for any way to feed Stamkos for an empty-net goal, but he couldn’t create a passing lane and had to shoot the puck himself.
“That was the only thing in my head,” Hedman said Wednesday before the Canucks game. “After I put it in, the first thing I did was to watch the replay to see if I could have passed it. But it would have taken something special to get that through. You’re obviously looking for (Stamkos). … I was going to try to put (the puck) off the bar to make sure he had the rebound.”
After failing to reach 500 in two home games last week, Stamkos had 11 shot attempts (four on goal) Saturday in St. Louis — including one off the post with an open net in front of him — and two empty-net looks late. Four of his five shots on goal in Seattle came in the first period.
“It’s just one of those things,” Stamkos said. “I’ve had so many good looks the last couple games that, subconsciously, probably gripping the stick a little bit. And then you look back and (I’m) probably thankful now that I missed that empty-netter in St. Louis, that I got a chance to do it on a great play by my teammates and then cap it off tonight with an empty-netter. Which was a little more sure-handed, but just special for sure.”
With his 1,000 career points (he also got his 500th assist this season) to go along with two Stanley Cup championships, Stamkos, who turns 33 next month, seemingly also reaches the prerequisites for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
While Stamkos has shunned personal accomplishments, his teammates knew this mark was different.
“It meant a lot to him, and because it meant a lot to him, it meant a lot to us,” said Killorn, who has assisted on 49 of Stamkos’ goals, fourth most. “He’s a very selfless guy. I know he cares a lot more about Cups than this, but he’s got two Cups and now he’s got this so it’s a special moment and he’s a special player.”
After the game, Stamkos addressed the locker room and thanked everyone for helping him to reach the milestone.
“Just to watch that kid grow into a man, a phenomenal leader, and to be honest, he’s a generational goal scorer,” Cooper said. “That’s what he is. And those guys don’t come around that often. And enjoy him while you can.”
From the teenager who was immediately Tampa Bay’s franchise fixture when drafted No. 1 overall in 2008, to the unquestioned leader of the game’s most dominant team the past three seasons, Stamkos now is in rare company.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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