You can taste the tension boiling league-wide.
With the puck dropping on the Stanley Cup playoffs in less than two weeks, leaders are growing more outspoken. Something is at stake. Something feels like it could be lost — and along with it, the we’ll-get-‘er-backs and one-game-at-a-times are vanishing too.
Over the last 10 days: Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf questioned the Ducks’ professionalism after a blown-lead defeat to the last-place Maple Leafs. Vancouver’s best player, Daniel Sedin, called the effort of some of his teammates embarrassing. Kyle Okposo, the Islanders’ assist leader, ripped his home rink’s sloppy ice. And last night an unhappy Jarmoir Jagr, the Panthers’ top scorer, challenged the league to do something about penalizing Florida for the fans’ rat toss.
Men who recognize a closing window.
It’s the slow boil inside the top scorer of Florida’s other playoff-bound club, however, that is most intriguing.
Since the trade deadline passed, Steven Stamkos has consistently been calling out his team’s inconsistency.
“We just had too many passengers tonight. We’re at a point in the season where that just can’t happen. It’s unacceptable. I don’t care who we’re playing,” Stamkos told reporters after Thursday’s 3-0 home loss to a shell of a Montreal Canadiens lineup.
“This is almost go time with the playoffs here. Just not a good enough effort consistently all around. We need better than that. It can’t be in spurts. It has to be consistent, and that’s something we’ve been battling with lately.”
Stamkos’ tenure with the Lightning may well be down to its final weeks, and the captain has been leading by word and deed. He carried a six-game point streak into Amalie Arena last night and has climbed into a tie for fourth overall in goals (36).
“There’s no excuses. It’s look-yourself-in-the-mirror time,” Stamkos said. The clunk of a gauntlet. “If you’re not giving the effort, then you’re letting your teammates and down, and that’s not acceptable at this time.”
Stamkos and Jon Cooper were on the same page after Thursday’s defeat. After the Lightning mustered a measly three shots on net in the third period, Cooper said the boys must hold themselves accountable.
The Habs stinker arrived on the heels of a Martin Fennelly article titled “Stamkos ain’t broke, so why is Cooper trying to fix him?” in which the columnist pointed out this stat: Stamkos has 30 goals in 53 games where he mostly played centre; he has six goals in 23 games where he played at least some right wing. That works out to .566 goals per game versus .260 goals per game.
“I like to think I can make that transition,” Stamkos told the The Tampa Tribune of the move to wing Monday. “It’s a little different, especially when you’re comfortable playing one for a little while and now you get flipped back and forth.”
Rewind just two weeks, when a rather uninspired Lightning squad lost 4-1 to Marlies/Leafs hybrid at the Air Canada Centre.
Stamkos was ticked. Curt.
“We have to be better,” he said. “How many times are we going to talk about the inconsistency of our game? It’s frustrating. It shouldn’t matter who you’re playing. Give an effort.”
Based on quotes alone, you’d think the Lightning were clawing for a wild-card spot. Not at all. Tampa (43-25-9) has 93 points, just two behind rival Florida for the Atlantic title, and the Lightning easily hold the ROW tiebreaker.
When I asked him, Stamkos told me the division crown means nothing.
“Once playoffs start, no one gives a crap about who won the division or who won the league, or how many points a player had,” he said. “It’s about what you do in the playoffs.”
Even at peak pissed, Stamkos calls his team a special group. He genuinely believes the Bolts have what it takes to win a ring. Opportunity wasted is the worst kind of opportunity.
The 2015-16 playoff teams fall into mostly three categories: former champs who know what it takes (Chicago, Los Angeles), happy-to-be-there success stories (Philadelphia, Minnesota, Florida, Dallas), and desperate groups that better win or there could be hell to pay (St. Louis, Anaheim, Tampa Bay).
That the most important free agent since we can remember falls into that last category consistently makes for wonderful drama. Win or lose.