The Tampa Bay Lightning looked like they were in serious trouble only a week after the Olympic break. Excitement over Steven Stamkos’ upcoming return to game action since breaking his right tibia on November 11 was tainted with Martin St. Louis’ request for a trade to the New York Rangers.
With the heart-and-soul captain of the team wanting out, the Bolts consequently tumbled from second in the Atlantic to fighting for a playoff position as they won a mere one out of four games in a very tight division race.
The Lightning, whom many at the beginning of the 2013-2014 season predicted would not make the playoffs, appeared to be free-falling out of contention. Even though Stamkos was named as the tenth captain in Lightning history after St. Louis’ departure on March 5, the Bolts continued to stumble with a 3-1 loss against Buffalo on March 6 then two shootout losses on March 8 and 10, a decline that coach Jon Cooper called “alarming”.
Fortunately, Tampa Bay won their next five out of seven. Their only two loses occurred in overtime, giving the Bolts the points they needed to sit third in the Atlantic Division with two games on hand against second-place Montreal. The Lightning were able to reclaim their position as one of the league’s top teams thanks in part to their leadership.
Stamkos’ Quick Return
Part of the reason why the Lightning were able to rebound so quickly was that Stamkos did not waste much time returning to form. Not to say there was not an adjustment period: on March 6, the first game Stamkos served as the tenth captain in Lightning history, he recorded zero goals and zero assists despite five shots on goal and 21:03 minutes of ice time (second only to defenseman Matt Carle). Stamkos would not record any points for the next two games, both of which resulted in shootout losses for the Bolts.
That set the stage for Stammer’s return. During the March 13 match-up against their in-state rivals the Florida Panthers, Stamkos assisted on Tyler Johnson’s goal in the final minutes of the second period to put the Bolts up 4-2. He then scored his first goal as the Lightning’s captain in the third period.
This goal, a laser from the face-off dot, is vintage Stamkos:
Since that win, Stamkos scored six goals and two assists for eight points in six games, including a hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 19.
Stamkos’ Leadership On and Off the Ice
For a team that had recently lost a great leader, Stamkos quickly filled the void in the locker room. He is now the longest-tenured member of the Bolts despite only playing his first NHL game in 2008. During that time, he had former Lightning captains Vincent Lecavalier and St. Louis to learn from. He also got his feet wet while serving as alternate captain since 2010.
One example of Stamkos’ leadership can be seen four games into his captaincy. In interviews prior to the game on March 13 against the Panthers, coach Jon Cooper emphasized that his team could not risk overlooking a team they had historically beaten; Stamkos, like a good captain, conveyed the same message as his coach, repeating the phrase “overlooking” yet also speaking of the game as an opportunity to get the ball rolling for the team.
In the third period, Stamkos followed through on his pre-game words. He scored the game-winner and his first goal as captain (see video above) against the Panthers. Despite how the big the goal was or how much it meant to him, Stamkos remained calm, pointing out line mate Valtteri Filppula on the ice for setting up the play. It was not just Cooper who applauded Stamkos on his composure for avoiding a big “celly” for his first goal since November 9 as well as his acknowledgement of Filppula. Coach’s Corner Don Cherry also praised the new captain on Hockey Night in Canada for not “hot-dogging it”.
The Lightning would hang on during a Panthers comeback attempt in the third period and secure their first win since March 1. The ball indeed started rolling; the Bolts won their next four games.
Eric Brewer earns the “A”
Stamkos was not the only member of the Lightning to wear a new letter on his sweater. On March 6, defenseman Eric Brewer received the “A”, the first time he wore a letter in the NHL since captaining the St. Louis Blues from 2008 to 2011.
With several of Tampa Bay’s defensemen in only their first or second year playing at the NHL level, Brewer has served as a veteran presence, leading by example through his tough work ethic and habits at both practice and during games.
While the team rewarded Brewer for his consistency, the 34-year-old defenseman rewarded the team. Since being named alternate captain, Brewer had tallied three assists. He also scored a goal on March 20, his first of the year.
The Lightning faced a storm that encompassed losing streaks and difficult trades but with new leadership entrenched in the team, the Bolts have overcome adversity and look posed to reach their first playoffs since 2011.