NEW YORK — Midway through the second period of a scoreless Game 5, Lightning center Steven Stamkos took a stretch pass, banked off the boards, into the offensive zone. He knew he had numbers, getting ahead of Rangers winger Tanner Glass who looked to intercept the outlet pass. But Stamkos instead spied his linemate, Valtteri Filppula, charging into the middle of the ice and opted to dish a clean feed.
With his pass, however, Stamkos did not just deliver the puck to his teammate; he also gave with it the benefit of time and space. As New York defenseman Marc Staal hedged over to Stamkos gaining speed on the wing, he left Filppula alone in the slot, where the center buried a hard shot blocker side on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist to give Tampa Bay a 1–0 lead.
“Everybody knows about his shot. It’s always dangerous,” Filppula said. “He attracted their defense over to him a little bit, so it gave me a little more time.”
For a shooter like Stamkos, passing in that situation was more than just a confidence game; it showed a sign of a more confident game from the Lightning captain. Just two shifts later, Stamkos was the beneficiary of a beautiful tic-tac-toe passing sequence on the power play, tapping in his seventh goal of the playoffs to put Tampa Bay up 2–0. With his hand in each of the Lightning’s goals in Game 5, Stamkos has helped his team to within one win of a Stanley Cup finals appearance.
Things seem rosy now, but rewind back to May 3, to Game 2 of Tampa Bay’s second-round series against Montreal. Stamkos had been mired in a scoring slump, goalless in eight games and with only three assists to his name as the Lightning just eked by Detroit in seven games. For players like Stamkos, who had 43 goals and hadn’t gone without scoring for more than seven games this season, such limited productivity inevitably becomes a talking point, a lightning rod for criticism. As a superstar, the pressure only becomes magnified.
“I think for me, it was a great adversity test,” Stamkos said of the slump. “Our team was winning, which was great. The depth has prevailed all season for our team, but I knew I was playing the right way.”
Finally in Game 2 of that series, he broke through on a breakaway in the second, scoring a spectacular goal on Canadiens goalie Carey Price. Just after the puck crossed the line, Stamkos let out of a yell of relief, the sound one ostensibly makes when the monkey finally leaps off one’s back. And the postseason began to change for him then. In the nine games since, Stamkos has scored six more times and added five assists, and is now tied for second in the league with 17 points in the playoffs. Considering he had just three points through eight games, his pace has been blistering.
“I’m definitely more confident now than I was in the first eight games,” he said. “When you have confidence, you try to keep it as long as you can.”
Stamkos has scored in each of his last four games, and since moving to the wing of Filppula in Game 6 of their series against Montreal, that line—with Alex Killorn on the other wing—has at times even outshined Tampa Bay’s magnificent Triplets.
“I think they’ve elevated their game to as high a level as you can play,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “[And] you have to look at what the other team is trying to do too. It’s not like they’re putting their eighth defense pairing against Stammer. He gets the top guys. They get the top checkers, and they continue to fight through things.”
Unlike the last three games of this series, however, Game 5 was no scoring frenzy. A tight-checking first period, it seemed, would favor the Rangers, who prefer that style of game. The middle three games of the series, in which the teams combined for 25 goals, seemed tailor-made for the offense-driven Lightning. But on Sunday night, Tampa Bay seemed to show another wrinkle to its game.
“Our game is defense first, even though I know you guys haven’t seen a lot of it,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said with a laugh. “If you look at history, defensive teams are usually the ones that are successful… You’re not losing many games when you have a shutout.”
Indeed, as (Yogi) Stralman suggested, a big performance in net certainly never hurts. After giving up 10 goals in the last two games to the Rangers, Lightning goalie Ben Bishop made 26 saves to silence a New York offense that had looked like it regained life in Games 3 and 4. He had help, particularly from Tampa Bay’s skilled penalty killers, who negated four power plays on Sunday night.
“That was the whole key to the game,” Cooper said. “I really thought it kind of sucked a little bit of the momentum away from them... [If] they get that first one, who knows how this game turns.”
The series, however, now turns back to Tampa Bay, where the Lightning have the chance to close it out on Tuesday night. That hasn’t always been easy for them this spring. “In these playoffs, we’ve had a big emotional win, and then we’ve kind of had a letdown game,” Stamkos said. “We’ve learned our lesson pretty quick. The toughest one to win is the fourth one.”