You can triangulate the exact moment a star player will begin getting asked about a production shortfall during the Stanley Cup Playoffs using a highly technical formula: It arrives when his personal multi-game drought overlaps with his team’s position getting less certain in a series and he’s made available to speak with reporters.
It matters not if he’s played well and hit six posts, or been completely nullified by the opposing team’s checkers, or if he’s skating on one good leg.
What the narrative demands under those circumstances is someone to embody the fickle nature of playoff existence, which explains in large part why Steven Stamkos found himself getting asked about the zeroes being produced by his line with Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli on Monday morning and how limited he might potentially be by a late-season injury.
“Ummm, (I’m) good enough to play, so …,” Stamkos responded.
It was his head coach, Jon Cooper, who sagely suggested that it would only be a matter of time before the points started to fall for his second line. This was roughly 10 hours before Stamkos converted a member’s bounce on his first shift as part of a three-point night during Tampa’s unexpected 8-0 win over the New York Islanders in Game 5 of their Stanley Cup semifinal series.
“Tonight was time. You’re not going to hold those guys down forever,” said Cooper. “For them to score in their first shift and just build off that, we knew it was coming. It was great to see and they were pretty fired up.”
Stamkos had been held without an even-strength point in the series through four games and hadn’t scored a goal in his last five. He was not the reason things were dead even with the Islanders entering a crucial night at Amalie Arena, and it would be foolish to confuse him with the guy who carried major offensive expectations for the Lightning for a decade.
That’s not a knock on Stamkos, who remains a serious one-time threat on a power play that’s mowing down opponents and has 17 points to show for his 16 games this post-season. It’s merely a recognition of how his role has evolved through time and injuries to the stage where Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are now the primary offensive drivers on the team.
Father Time has not yet robbed the 31-year-old of his special game-breaking ability even if he’s limited by it. We saw that in the Edmonton bubble when Stamkos scored a goal in last year’s Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars during one of the five shifts he was able to grit through because of an abdominal core muscle injury that later required surgery.
On Monday it appeared again — first with the converted bounce at 45 seconds and later with the vintage power-play blast from the left circle that made it 4-0 and basically erased any distant hope of an Islanders comeback.
“He puts pucks into mail slots sometimes,” said Point.
Steven Stamkos with that wicked one-timer #ItsOn pic.twitter.com/9DxaVsln6V
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) June 22, 2021
No wonder this Lightning team has made such a habit of delivering while winning their last six playoff series.
They’ve got almost an embarrassment of riches with arguably the best goaltender in the league (Andrei Vasilveskiy), arguably the best defenceman in the league (Victor Hedman) and an attack that includes Kucherov, Point, Stamkos, Killorn and Ondrej Palat.
They’ve now followed their last 11 playoff losses with a victory, which Stamkos chalked up to a mindset established primarily by Vasilevskiy in goal.
Backed into a corner you can always count on this group responding with urgency and purpose. Even though the flood of goals in Game 5 will almost certainly be an outlier, it was the product of a ferocious start where the Lightning poured everything they could toward the Islanders net and got some good breaks.
“We earned everything we got today because we played the right way,” said Stamkos.
They will need to do it again to book a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final. There’s no way this proud Islanders team will go away quietly, not Wednesday at Nassau Coliseum and not if they manage to stretch this series to a Game 7.
But what Monday’s performance did for the Lightning was ensure a little more calm for the next 48 hours. Kucherov leads all playoff scorers with 27 points, Point owns the second-longest goal streak in playoff history at eight games and Stamkos is clicking along at better than a point per game.
“Stammer’s played well,” said Cooper. “There’s the blanket (thought) ‘Hey, if Stamkos is not scoring then he’s not contributing’ and it’s just not the case. It’s a hard league to score in, especially against that team. …
“It’s hard to score in this league and he’s done it better than almost anybody in his generation.”
Questions asked and answered.
It’s the Lightning Way.