If Steven Stamkos needs some reassurance after coming up empty in the Stanley Cup Final, he only needs to look to the man upstairs.
After all his boss, Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman, didn’t exactly drape himself with glory during his first trip to the championship round either.
Yzerman, then the high-scoring captain of the Detroit Red Wings, tallied just once in that 1995 showdown with the Martin Brodeur and Scott Stevens-led New Jersey Devils. It was a meaningless power play goal late in a 5–2 Game 3 loss, making a blowout look only slightly more respectable. The Wings were swept away in the next game. Yzerman, still two years away from his transformation into an elite two-way forward, was –7 in the series.
Of course, he had a decent excuse for his poor showing. Yzerman had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his right knee earlier in the playoffs, costing him three games in the Western Conference Finals. When he showed up for the Cup final, he clearly was less than 100%.
Still, he recognized his missed opportunity.
“I wasn’t good enough,” he said at the time.
Yzerman wasn’t the first young star to wilt under the spotlight. That initial step onto the big stage can be a doozy for any player. For an up-and-comer carrying the weight of heavy expectations, it can be too much to bear.
Rick Nash found that out the hard way just last spring. After scoring 26 goals in 65 games to lead the Rangers during the regular season, he was being counted on to key New York’s playoff attack. Instead, Nash was held without a goal in three of four playoff series, including the Rangers’ five-game loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final.
Like Stamkos, Nash had his chances to make an impact in the final, including one glorious opportunity with New York’s season on the line. It was during the second overtime period of Game 5 when he found himself all alone in the right circle with Jonathan Quick out of position. “I was thinking, ‘We’re heading back to New York for Game 6,” he told SI's Ben Reiter. “I’m in the slot, backdoor. Goalie’s committed. I got a wide-open one-timer to end the game. Hit it exactly how I wanted to.”
He should have been the hero. But instead of finding twine his shot was deflected wide by a lunging Slava Voynov. “The D-man just held out his stick, and it hit the shaft,” Nash says. “It was unbelievable.”
Five minutes later, Alec Martinez scored the winner to clinch the Cup for the Kings.
Hockey history is littered with stories of first-final jitters. By the time Evgeni Malkin scored his first goal of the 2008 Cup final it was Game 6, far too late to matter to his Pittsburgh Penguins. Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin was held to one goal in a seven-game loss to the Bruins in 2011. So was his brother, Daniel.
Even Wayne Gretzky was held without a goal in his Cup final debut in 1983. He did chip in four assists, but after leading the league with 71 goals and 196 points during the regular season his drought was viewed as a key reason behind the Islanders knocking off his high-powered Oilers in four straight by scores of 2–0, 6–3, 5–1 and 4–2.
Of course, Gretzky went on to have a bit more success his next go-round in the final. So did Malkin. So did Yzerman.
There are no guarantees that Stamkos will get another kick at the can—the Sedins and Nash are still waiting on theirs—but if it happens you can bet it‘ll be different for him, too.