TAMPA — A calm settled over Steven Stamkos. He had gone to the penalty box kicking himself, having taken a holding penalty with 8:15 remaining in the third period and the Tampa Bay Lightning up by a goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers.
He was disappointed, in himself, in the situation, in the result, as Frank Vatrano scored off a face-off on the power play to tie the game 1-1.
And yet, Stamkos was calm.
“It was weird,” he said. “I mean, it’s easy to say now, but I wasn’t as rattled as I usually am in those situations. I think I was just confident in our group that we’d find a way, whether it was in regulation or was in overtime. We deserved to win the game tonight.”
[RELATED: Complete Rangers vs. Lightning series coverage]
He returned to the ice, for a face-off and a new start and a chance. And then it all happened, so fast. There was Ondrej Palat with the pass that sprung Nikita Kucherov. There was Stamkos coming down the ice, getting ahead of Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba, putting him in just the position to take the Kucherov feed and make the shot, the puck bouncing off goalie Igor Shesterkin and then off Stamkos’s leg and in.
There he was, the captain and the leader answering for his own sins, scoring 21 seconds after Vatrano had tied it. There was 6:32 remaining and Stamkos, with his second goal of the game, was willing the Lightning into their third straight Stanley Cup Final.
That’s where it would end, with a 2-1 win Saturday at Amalie Arena in Game 6 of the best-of-7 series, with each goal coming from Stamkos, who has always been the team’s north star.
It was fitting.
“In an elimination game, to not only score the first but to answer back 21 seconds after they [score], it’s like, you’re so proud,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And you’re proud that ‘Stammer’ got to do it. He’ll be the first one to push the accolades to everybody else, but he had a [heck] of a series, and I think it paid off in Game 6. Just happy for him and his legacy as the captain of this team.”
Video: [email protected], Gm6: Stamkos opens scoring at top of circle
Stamkos leads the Lightning in goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with nine, one more than Palat. He is third in points, his 15 behind Kucherov’s 23 and Palat’s 16.
He had already scored the first goal of the game, an angled shot from the right circle at 10:43 of the second period. He had already pulled his weight in yet another game that would add to both his legacy and that of the Lightning, scoring the 40th playoff goal of his NHL career.
But he wasn’t done. He would make it 41.
“In that second goal, just rises up to the occasion,” forward Alex Killorn said. “‘Kooch’ makes a great play, but ‘Stammer’ works his butt off to get that half breakaway. But a great leader for us. We follow him. And he’s been unbelievable in the playoffs.”
Stamkos scored five of his postseason goals against the Rangers in the series, finishing with seven points in the six games. He was everything that the Lightning needed him to be, especially with the team missing Brayden Point since Game 7 of their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It’s something that Cooper has marveled at over the past two seasons. Especially after what happened in 2020. That was when Stamkos missed the entirety of the playoffs, returning just long enough to score a single goal in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, as the Lightning captured their first title on his watch.
Video: [email protected], Gm6: Stamkos strikes back 21 seconds later
In 2021, he led the team — on ice, this time — to their second straight Cup, scoring 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 23 games. And he is well on his way to besting that career high in playoff points, which he also accomplished in 2015.
“Watching ‘Stammer’s’ growth and going from the 60-goal scorer (2011-12), the young guy, to the leader, the captain and the guy that people are rallying around, he’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders,” Cooper said. “He’s got to score. He’s got to lead. He’s got to be the face of the franchise. He’s got to do all these things.
“He misses our first Cup run, he misses basically the whole thing. At some point you want the light to shine on him. And it has in so many different ways.”
The light was bright Saturday, as Stamkos led his team, as he scored once, and then again, as he pushed the Lightning into the Cup Final, as he remained calm despite the pressure and the situation and the momentary disappointment in himself.
And no one put it better, or more succinctly, than goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“Best captain in my life,” Vasilevskiy said. “Just amazing.”
Source : NHL News