The NHL’s 60-goal club includes Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull and seven other members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Steven Stamkos is tantalizingly close to becoming the newest member. The Tampa Bay Lightning star needs to score one more goal in the season finale at MTS Centre in Winnipeg on Saturday night to put his name in the history books.
There have been just 38 seasons of 60 goals or more in the NHL by a total of 19 players—almost all of them during the league’s offensive explosion in the 1980’s and early 90’s—and Stamkos is vying to join Alex Ovechkin as the only ones to accomplish the feat since 1996.
“It’s a tribute to his willingness to focus on the small details and paying the price,” said Lightning coach Guy Boucher. “Because that’s what it is, really: If you want to score goals you’ve got to go to the front of the net and you’ve got to go around it.”
The pursuit of 60 has been tracked closely, particularly with the Lightning having been eliminated from playoff contention before heading on the road for three games in Canadian cities to close out the schedule.
It’s no coincidence that Stamkos took his game to another level this year. His biggest weapon the last couple seasons was a one-timer that proved to be downright lethal on the power play—at least until opponents started keying in on it and finding ways to take it away.
That forced Stamkos to start going to harder areas on the ice and made him a much more effective player. The result? Stamkos has scored 47 of 59 goals while the Lightning were at even strength this season, the highest total by any NHL player since 1993.
“I think Steven has really developed his even strength game,” said Boucher. “It’s not even comparable to the beginning of last year.”
From a goal-scoring standpoint, the season is Ruthian in nature. Only three other NHL players have even hit 40 goals as scoring around the league continues to decline.
As recently as the all-star game in late January, there would have been few who believed the plateau was within reach. Since then, Stamkos has scored 27 times in 33 games and heads into the finale in Winnipeg with good vibes, having scored in both previous visits to MTS Centre this season.
The 22-year-old former No. 1 pick is accustomed to dealing with attention and seems to be taking his headline-grabbing run in stride.
“I get asked about it every day, so it’s tough not to (think about it),” said Stamkos. “It’s something that you never know if you’re going to get that close again in your career, so you might as well try to at least go for it. It’s not something I’m pressing.
“I was thinking more about getting to 50 when I was around 47, 48 goals, to be honest. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”
The Lightning are doing everything they can to help. Stamkos saw more than 25 minutes of ice time during a 3-2 loss in Toronto on Thursday night and directed eight shots on goal, with one of them finding the back of the net.
The Leafs players took some pride in not allowing No. 60 to be scored in their building and that will surely be a motivator for the Jets as well.
In recent days, Boucher has tried to downplay the significance of the milestone. While he doesn’t think it has affected Stamkos, he’s seen a change in teammates who are working too hard trying to find him with a perfect pass.
He also believes it doesn’t really matter what his star player’s exact goal total ends up being.
“To the media it’s 60 goals, to the fans it’s 60 goals, but to him he doesn’t care,” said Boucher. “He really doesn’t. He’s an unselfish guy. He’s never cared about the numbers.”
But this is a number worth caring about.
Only two players have finished a season sitting at 59 goals—Marcel Dionne and Pavel Bure—and in Dionne’s case he would never hit 60. Without question, it’s an exclusive club and this could represent the best chance Stamkos ever gets to join it.
“I’m not trying to think about that too much,” he said. “At this time of the year, it doesn’t mean much to our team because we’re not in the playoffs. I know everyone’s going to be trying to get me the puck, no matter what I say—that’s the kind of guys that we have on our team—but it would mean a lot more to me if we were in the playoffs.”