MONTREAL — Steven Stamkos is searching.
Searching for something he’s always had.
The struggle could be seen in the body language of the Tampa Bay Lightning captain during a Game 1 victory over Montreal on Friday night.
The slumped shoulders, a stick occasionally slammed in frustration.
“You just have to find a way,” he said again and again after arriving at the Bell Centre.
For whatever reason, one of the deadliest goal-scorers on earth can’t find a goal. It’s certainly not for lack of effort, or care, but with the space on the ice tightening and the level of obstruction rising Stamkos hasn’t broken through.
The last time he went nine games without scoring was early in his rocky rookie season — some 2,200 days and 200-plus goals ago.
That length of dry spell is routine for the majority of players around the league. It speaks to Stamkos’ unbelievable skill and consistency that he’s largely avoided slumps despite receiving heightened attention from opponents.
Given that this one has arrived now, it’s hard not to tie it to the bigger picture. Scoring has evaporated league-wide during these grinding playoffs, and Stamkos readily admits that he hasn’t been able to find the usual number or quality of chances in recent weeks.
“It’s just getting tougher and tougher,” he said. “When you’re out there and you’re trying to get to the net, there’s guys obviously that have a job and they don’t want to be on the video the next day because they let you go in the slot or let you have an opportunity to score.”
There was evidence in Friday’s game that Stamkos isn’t simply settling for shots from the outside or his patented one-timers. He fought his way into the slot and sent a dangerous redirection Carey Price’s way, and beat a defender on the rush to set up a wrist shot from the right wing.
But still he came away with nothing.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien showed Stamkos respect by deploying top defensive pairing P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov against his line, rather than the red-hot Ondrej Palat-Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov trio.
“Steven’s a world-class player,” said Subban. “You’d expect him to break out of that (slump) at one point sooner than later. One thing, when I’m on the ice with him, listen it’s difficult.
“He’s not an easy guy to defend.”
The most logical explanation for the goal drought seems to be an injury, although Stamkos has denied that he’s playing hurt. After an innocuous-looking bump with Price behind the goal in Game 1, cameras caught him favouring his left wrist or arm on the bench.
Stretching back to the regular season, he’s scored just three goals in his last 18 games. And this is a man who has scored more than anyone not named Alex Ovechkin this year.
No wonder Stamkos is feeling the weight of this slump, especially with Tampa playing beyond the first round for just the second time in his career.
Even with less space than ever on the ice, Stamkos believes he simply has to fight through. Witness Ovechkin’s brilliant goal on Saturday afternoon, when he split Rangers defencemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi before beating Henrik Lundqvist.
It was an act of will, not to mention skill.
“Come playoff time, guys are willing to do anything to win,” said Stamkos. “Before Christmas it’s one season and after Christmas it’s another, and we get to the playoffs and it’s a whole different level. It is.
“The sacrifice, just what guys are willing to put their body through because of the magnitude of the game and never knowing when you’re going to get that opportunity again.”
The bright side for the Lightning is that they’re in a good spot despite the captain’s struggles. They’ve already stolen home-ice advantage back from the Habs and can take a 2-0 series lead back to Amalie Arena with a win on Sunday night.
And if the law of averages has taught us anything, it’s that Stamkos won’t continue to be held down the longer this run lasts.
“The great thing about the playoffs now is once the puck drops tonight no one’s really going to remember what happened the first round,” Stamkos said before Game 1. “It’s what you do from here on out to help your team win. It’s kind of a fresh sheet.”