WASHINGTON, D.C. — Steven Stamkos wasn’t scoring, but no one was questioning his leadership or calling for the ‘C’ to be ripped off jersey. To be honest, no one was really even talking about it.
Instead, with the Tampa Bay Lightning star mired in a seven-week slump that began on March 6 and extended all the way into the second round of the playoffs, the focus turned to how Brayden Point had emerged as one of the best young players in the NHL, how Nikita Kucherov had added a physical dimension to his game, and how everyone from J.T. Miller to Yanni Gourde was providing the secondary offence needed to win the Stanley Cup.
If you want to know why Stamkos chose to re-sign with Tampa Bay and not jump to Toronto two years ago — aside from Florida’s tax situation and the fact that he can wear shorts to the rink in January — this was it.
“I think I saw what everyone else saw: we have a great core, great ownership, great management that’s going to give our team a chance to win every year,” Stamkos said of his thinking behind the decision to sign an eight-year, $64-million extension that will keep him in Tampa Bay until 2024. “We’ve had this core for a long time now and being so close, losing in the final (in 2015), everyone had a sense that we’d be a team that would have a chance to win every year.”
Stamkos is still looking for that first Stanley Cup, having reached the conference final three times in his 10-year career. It’s not quite the “14 years of frustration” that Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Alex Ovechkin has endured. But after last year’s face plant, when Stamkos played only 17 games because of a knee injury and Tampa Bay failed to make the playoffs, the motivation is to win now.
“Last year was tough,” said Stamkos, who is 28 years old. “I think we had a little chip on our shoulder coming in and we’ve put ourselves in a position to do that again this year. It’s by no means easy to win in this league, but when you have a team like we’ve assembled over the years, you want to be part of that and you want to be on a team that has a chance to do well in the playoffs.”
Well, not just do well. The pre-season expectation was that the Lightning would reach the final — if not win the Cup. That expectation grew at the trade deadline when the team acquired Miller and defenceman Ryan McDonagh at the trade deadline.
“Of course, you feel it a little bit when your ownership — management — goes out and makes some big trades,” Stamkos said. “Obviously, they expect you to do well and have a playoff run. We obviously want to back that up on the ice.”
If Stamkos had been sometimes guilty of standing off in the sidelines in the opening two rounds — he did have seven assists in 10 games — he has been front and centre in the Eastern Conference final. His three goals and five points are the most on the team.
With the Lightning trailing 2-0 in the best-of-seven series to the Washington Capitals, it was Stamkos who set the tone early in Game 3 by uncorking a one-timer that found a puck-sized target in the far top corner. Kucherov, Point and Victor Hedman also scored in the 4-2 road win.
“We’re in a position now where we can win one more game and get back home and really make a series of it,” Stamkos said with Game 4 slated for Thursday here. “We know which guys want to step up and which guys want to produce at this time of the year, and you see when we can do that collectively as a group we can have a lot of success.”
For the first half of the season, Stamkos and had made a compelling argument that the Hart Trophy should be shared this year. Heading into the All-Star Game, Kucherov led all scorers with 64 points; Stamkos was tied for third with 58.
But as the year wore on and the Lightning qualified for the playoffs with almost a month remaining in the season, Stamkos’ production began to fade. He went the final 12 games of the regular season without a goal and managed only one goal in the first seven games of the playoffs.
It wasn’t an issue, of course, because the team cruised past the Devils and Bruins in five games each. But when the Lightning stubbed their toe and dropped the first two games at home against the Capitals, for the first time in the playoffs fingers started to point towards Tampa Bay’s captain, who was still searching for his first even-strength point of the series.
That he was able to answer the bell in Game 3 bodes well for the Lightning — regardless of their depth.
“You need everyone chipping in and it seems at times that those guys have gone quiet in games,” Cooper said. “But the big games when we’ve needed them … those guys put the puck in the net for us. That says a lot right there.”
The one-timer that Steven Stamkos unleashed to score in Game 3 was nothing new. The Lightning captain has built a career on his ability to slap a moving puck. But that didn’t stop Cooper from marvelling at the speed, accuracy and sheer power of a shot that simply cannot be stopped.
“It doesn’t matter how you defend them, they’re going to find a way,” Cooper said not only of Stamkos’ goal, but Kucherov’s similar one-timer. “You look at last night, (defenceman Matt) Niskanen was over there and (goaltender Braden) Holtby was set and (Stamkos) still found a way.
“Same with Kuch’s. And they’ve got a guy on the other side (Alex Ovechkin) that can do the same thing.”
With three goals in his last three games — and five in his last six — Stamkos said he’s looking for even more reasons to use his weapon these days.
“Obviously, when things start going in the confidence level gets higher and you find yourself wanting the puck more, wanting to make plays and wanting to shoot it,” he said. “I think confidence is a big thing and it’s going well right now.”
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @Michael_Traikos