Blackhawks beware: Steven Stamkos's ferocious, hard-nosed play, coupled with a postseason position switch, could have the high-wattage Lightning hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup
LIKE A man who learns to foxtrot by reading The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ballroom Dancing, the steps in the notable and curious career of Lightning center Steven Stamkos often have appeared, well, a little off.
There are those two NHL goal-scoring titles (in 2009--10 and '11--12), sure, but with Stamkos the steps have always seemed to be a half beat behind the music. Take the winter of 2010. Canada was playing its favorite quadrennial parlor game of anointing an Olympic hockey team, and although he was in the midst of a 51-goal season, the then 19-year-old Stamkos was judged too callow for Vancouver. Or consider Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals: A second-period shot by the Bruins intersected with the bridge of his nose and turned his mug into an abattoir, knocking him out of the game for five minutes; he returned, wearing a birdcage mask, but Tampa Bay still suffered a crushing 1--0 loss. In November 2013, seven weeks before Canada chose its team for the Sochi Olympics, Stamkos shattered his right tibia, and no amount of magical thinking or medical voodoo could heal his leg before selections were made. Or go back seven weeks to the start of these playoffs. Stamkos, who had 43 goals in a supposedly middling regular season (second only to Alex Ovechkin's 53, though his points-per-game average was 0.88, the lowest since his rookie year), went the first eight games without scoring. The cascade of criticism from the hockey media made it seem as if the Lightning captain had disappeared more rapidly than the cocktail shrimp at a buffet table.
For all conspicuously gifted goal scorers, the question eventually evolves from How Many? to How Quickly? It is taken for granted that they will score goals in bunches, but when will they help their teams to Stanley Cup silver, and their countries to Olympic gold? As his 2015 playoff drought stretched on, Stamkos—with his bumpy nose and earnest gaze—was beginning to assume the haunted look of a cornerstone player for whom life keeps getting in the way.
The pallor finally left Stamkos in the second round, against the Canadiens, when he scored three goals in Tampa Bay's six-game series victory. Against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals, he scored one goal each in Games 2, 3, 4 and 5. In Game 7, at Madison Square Garden last Friday, he got out of the way for good. Early in the third period of a scoreless game, linemate Alex Killorn backhanded a shot from 18 feet. Stamkos, loitering in the slot and screening Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, raised his left leg out of the path of the puck, which continued through a thicket and trickled between the pads of Lundqvist, who is normally compact and vacuum-sealed on shots from inside the hash marks. And just like that, the World's Most Famous Arena became the World's Most Famous Library. After doing so many big things for the Lightning from even before Day One—SEEN STAMKOS? billboards buoyed a sagging market prior to Tampa Bay's picking him first overall in the 2008 draft—he had done a little thing. "Hockey 101," he would say, shrugging off his leg lift. Sometimes you're the fire hydrant; sometimes you're the dog. Another 18 minutes and six seconds of clock time, and the Lightning had a 2--0 win, and Stamkos had reached his first Stanley Cup finals, where Tampa Bay will meet the Blackhawks. At last the steps were perfect. Now the big dance.
THE LEFT HALFBOARDS were to Stamkos what the fallow space behind the net once was to Wayne Gretzky: a refuge, a place where a guy could do some damage. The mind sees Stamkos on his off side, unleashing industrial-strength shots—he scored 15 from there during his 51-goal season in 2009--10—but the vivid image is now moldy. Of his 50 goals in the '14--15 regular season and playoffs, he has scored just four from the left halfboards. He still drops by the old neighborhood, but Stamkos doesn't live there anymore.
The pure shooter has turned into the impure shooter, a Pocket Ovechkin who was relentless in roughing up the Rangers. Early in the first period of Game 3, with his team trailing 1--0, Stamkos crushed unsuspecting New York winger Kevin Hayes—who had committed the rookie mistake of fishing for the puck, head down, in the corner—with a spirited check that presaged Tampa Bay's delirious 6--5 overtime victory. (Stamkos scored himself a few minutes later.) In Game 6, Stamkos wallpapered Ryan McDonagh against the boards from behind, infuriating the Rangers, who rushed to avenge their captain. Chris Kreider cross-checked Stamkos. By the time tempers cooled, the Lightning had scored on a power play. Ovechkin and Stamkos are not of the same physical stature (the Capitals' captain has three inches and some 35 pounds on Stamkos) but both are wingers, at least for now.
A few times during the season, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper had moved Stamkos to right wing from center—the marquee skating position, the one larded with responsibility and played masterfully by contemporaries like Chicago's Jonathan Toews. The experiment was short-lived. Then Ryan Callahan, Stamkos's customary rightwinger, underwent an emergency appendectomy before Game 6 of the second-round series against Montreal. The Triplets, a line centered by Tyler Johnson that to that point had accounted for 40% of the Lightning's postseason scoring, was sacrosanct, but the three remaining high-end forwards needed realigning. Cooper put Valtteri Filppula, a left shot, in the middle and shifted Stamkos to Filppula's right flank, freeing Tampa's captain from some of the defensive chores that typically belong to a center and allowing him to conserve energy for offense. The switch was a resounding success. Stamkos scored five goals in his eight games on the wing while playing bumper-car hockey.
"What you're seeing out there is a guy who's flat-out pissed off," says Gary Roberts, the 22-year NHL veteran who is Stamkos's personal trainer. "Pissed off that people were saying he didn't have a good season, pissed off that he was being ripped [for not scoring at the start of the playoffs]. So he's figured, Enough of this crap, and has been throwing his body around. You couldn't do that for 82 games."
When Stamkos entered the league in 2008, his coach, Barry Melrose (who lasted only 16 games), said the prodigy was not physically strong enough to play in the NHL. Melrose was impolitic but not incorrect. The Lightning put Stamkos on a weight-training program, which included lifting on some game days. Rick Tocchet, Melrose's successor, approached Roberts not long after taking over. Tocchet wanted Roberts, then on the brink of retirement, to create a regimen for Stamkos. When he began working out at Roberts's home in Toronto after the '08--09 season, Stamkos could squat his body weight—then about 180 pounds—only five times. Now 15 pounds heavier, Stamkos is able to do that with 450 pounds. When the intramedullary nail in his tibia was troubling Stamkos last summer, Roberts told him to take a day off. Stamkos demurred, crushed a workout and then flew to Tampa to have his leg checked. Roberts says that he has stopped letting other clients at his High Performance Centre run against Stamkos in drills. Too many pulled hamstrings.
"He shows up that summer after the 60 [goals] and I tell him, 'Congratulations,'" Roberts says. "He says, 'Thanks.' I say, 'No, congratulations because we're tied. We both have zero now.' I told him Marty [St. Louis] isn't going to be around forever." St. Louis, Stamkos's former linemate, created, in Roberts's estimation, an extra two or three scoring chances per game for Stamkos. Roberts told him, "Teams are going to key on you in the places where you're comfortable." Roberts preached the gospel of ugly goals from in front of the net. "If you look at the playoffs, that's what you get," he says. Like Killorn's inelegant series-winner.
"Whether it was the Olympics or the Stanley Cup, I've had a lot of bottled-up frustration," Stamkos said after the Game 7 victory over New York. "Now I'm finally getting an opportunity."
THE LIGHTNING present a dilemma for Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, a master bench manipulator, who must decide if he should match his best defense pair, Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson, against the Triplets, or use the two against the reconstituted Filppula line that features the NHL's second-best goal scorer over the past seven years (276 goals). This is the Stamkos Effect, one of the defining traits of this versatile team. Tampa Bay can crack open games with fire-wagon attacks and a power play that looks as if it had been designed by the Harlem Globetrotters, but the Lightning can also play button-down hockey when they don't fall in love with their own talent. If Stamkos continues to thrive in his modified role, his body of work might best be compared, not with Toews's or the Penguins' Sidney Crosby's but with a center's whose Hall of Fame career gained more renown when his goal scoring receded and his game expanded: Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman, who captained three Stanley Cup winners in 22 years with the Red Wings.
Said Stamkos after Game 7, in words he could have borrowed from his boss, "I'm willing to play the game the right way, to do whatever it takes."