TAMPA - You could certainly tell who’s been here before. When the Tampa Bay Lightning knocked off the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, they reacted, well, like a bunch of guys who were thrilled to be going to their first Stanley Cup final. When the Chicago Blackhawks took the Anaheim Ducks out in Game 7 of the western final, they looked as though they had just won a Silver Stick regional playdown.
But Lightning captain Steven Stamkos could be excused for his unbridled exuberance. This moment was seven years in the making for him. The individual accolades and the huge contract have been great, but until now Stamkos has been pining for his moment on the big stage, one that was robbed of him when he broke his leg three months before the Sochi Olympics. Sometimes when Stamkos gets out of bed, a pain shoots through that leg and gives him a reminder of the injury. Not that he needs those to recall how excruciating it was to watch his country win a gold medal, knowing full well he should have been there helping them.
“I’m not going to lie, it was tough,” Stamkos said. “As easy as it was to say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be watching the games and cheering on my buddies,’ and knowing a lot of the guys there…it sucked. And knowing you could have been there winning a gold medal, that stung. In 2010, I was 19 and I was just happy to be in the mix. Your name is being thrown around and that’s pretty cool, that was amazing. But this was the one I was looking forward to.”
Depending upon what the NHL decides when it comes to future Olympic participation, Stamkos may never get an opportunity to represent his country on the biggest stage in the world. And while this Lightning team is showing a huge amount of promise, Stamkos knows that opportunities like this one can’t be allowed to slip away without leaving everything on the ice. As much as the Lightning wants to the Blackhawks and/or the Los Angeles Kings when it grows up, Stamkos is smart enough to know that in today’s NHL, nothing is guaranteed.
As he looked around the room at the NHL’s annual Stanley Cup final Media Day and saw all the pictures of captains lifting the trophy around him, he couldn’t help but get caught up in the moment. It is the image of him doing just that that has caused his stomach to keep churning, particularly on game days.
“That’s what’s been disrupting my pre-game nap this playoff,” Stamkos said, “that vision of hoisting the Stanley Cup. There’s no denying the fact I’ve thought about it and it’s coming closer and closer to reality now and I realize that.”
The rise of the Lightning this quickly with so many young players has probably been on a faster track than most would have thought. But Lightning coach Jon Cooper said that in a strange way, the Lightning grew as a team when Stamkos was injured because it forced other players to step up and play more prominent roles. And Cooper said Stamkos has realized this season that in order for the Lightning to be successful, those players have to be given the opportunity to shine as well.
“Where Stammer has evolved, he’s understood that I think there’s a lot of situations where he’s had to carry the load of the team,” Cooper said. “If Stammer doesn’t score, Tampa is done. Really in this last year and a half, with our group anyway, he’s understood that we need other guys to step up. It just can’t be Stammer to do this all the time if the team is going to have success. He’s almost opened the door for Johnny (Tyler Johnson), (Ondrej) Palat, (Alex) Killorn, Fil (Valtteri Filppula), all those guys to have success. He’s really pushed the team ahead of himself. I think ultimately that’s what a leader does. He doesn’t think of himself, he just thinks of everybody else around him.”
During the second round against the Montreal Canadiens, Cooper approached Stamkos with the notion of switching to the wing and it has paid enormous dividends for the team. With Filppula at center and Killorn on the right side, the Lightning has two dangerous scoring lines. The emergence that Cooper talked about of the Palat-Johnson-Nikita Kucherov line has forced teams to spread out their defensive coverage rather than concentrate solely on shutting Stamkos down.
“Every time I step on the ice, I want to be the best player,” Stamkos said. “That hasn’t changed. I still have that mentality. But it’s definitely nice to see the depth we have on our team because not one guy is counted on all the time. We have different guys who have stepped up. The depth of this team is what has made us successful.”