By FRED GOODALL, AP Sports Journalist
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – Steven Stamkos, 32 and finishing his 14th season, is no longer one of the NHL’s most prolific scorers or even the second or third best player on his own team.
Six-time All-Star and two-time ‘Rocket’ Trophy winner Richard as the league’s leading scorer is the undisputed leader of the Tampa Bay Lightning, however, and one of the reasons the two-time defending champions of the Stanley Cup are four wins the first hat-trick in 40 years.
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals is Wednesday night. The Lightning will face the Colorado Avalanche after beating the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and New York Rangers to reach hockey’s biggest stage for the fourth time since 2015.
Stamkos has scored a team-leading nine goals in 17 games this postseason, including a pair in Tampa Bay’s 2-1 victory over the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“They are not individuals. It’s great to score a few goals in a huge game. … But if I hadn’t scored and we had won, I would have been just as happy,” said the 2008 No. 1 NHL Draft pick.
“That’s how the guys are on our team. Each guy plays a role. And (the media) can argue if it’s a big game or if it’s a small game,” the Lightning captain added. “We know in the room that everyone plays a huge role in the success of our group. That’s why we’ve done so well because the guys in this room really are like that.
Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Pat Maroon all played key roles in Tampa Bay winning back-to-back titles and becoming the first team to make three consecutive appearances in the final of the Stanley Cup. since the Edmonton Oilers from 1983 to 1985.
Stamkos has also carried his share of the burden, despite missing nearly the entire team championship two years ago through injury. There were many times over the next two seasons when his contributions were overshadowed by the play of some of the team’s younger stars.
Through it all, Stamkos continues to perform – and produce. He is the Lightning’s career scoring leader with 481 and earlier this season edged out Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis to become the franchise’s career scoring leader with 972 in 14 seasons.
The Lightning are trying to become the first team to triple since the New York Islanders won four consecutive titles from 1980-1983.
“Looking at Stammer’s growth – going from 60-goal scorer and youngster to leader, captain and guy people rally around – he’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders,” coach Jon Cooper said.
“He’s got to score, he’s got to lead, he’s got to be the face of the franchise,” Cooper added. “He has to do all these things.”
Missing all but one of Tampa Bay’s championship games in 2020 was one of the toughest periods of Stamkos’ career. He only played one game, recording 2:42 of ice time – while scoring a goal – in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals against Dallas.
The captain’s next appearance came after the team’s decisive victory in Game 6, with Stamkos donning his uniform and returning to the ice for the trophy presentation and celebration.
Scoring twice to eliminate Rangers – the winner delivered just 21 seconds after New York tied the game with a power-play goal scored with Stamkos in the penalty area for holding – propelled him into the spotlight .
Cooper, who has the Lightning in the Cup final for the fourth time, couldn’t be happier for him.
“Our first race in the Cup, almost everything is missing. So at some point you want the light to shine on him. And he did it in so many different ways,” Cooper said.
“But in a playoff game, not just to score the first goal, but to reply 21 seconds after scoring, you’re so proud,” Cooper added. “He’ll be the first to push the accolades to everyone, but he’s had a hell of a streak.”
This is indeed what Stamkos attempted to do.
“There was a quiet confidence with this group as there usually is in tight moments like this,” the captain said.
“Each guy is just part of the process. And that’s what makes this team so special, tight-knit and unique,” added Stamkos. “We don’t care how it’s done. You just need to do it.
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