Steven Stamkos Heats Up Scoring Race

When Steven Stamkos beat Columbus Blue Jacket’s goaltender Steve Mason with his patented one-timer on December 17, the 21-year-old center became the first NHLer to reach 20 goals this season, and the only player to repeat the achievement in consecutive years since Jaromir Jagr did it back-to-back-to-back beginning in 1994-95.

Not only did the goal hold up as the game-winner, but Stamkos’ 20th marker also handed him the league’s goal-scoring lead, pushing him past the injured Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers. The NHL awards the Rocket Richard Trophy to the player with the most goals at the end of the regular season, an accolade that Stamkos co-won with Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins after scoring 51 goals in the 2009-10 campaign.

Steven Stamkos has muscled his way into the lead for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the first player to reach the 20-goal mark. (Andy Martin Jr)

In a season full of catastrophic injuries, Stamkos’ scoring is not only a boon for Tampa Bay Lightning fans, but it is also a welcome display of superstar talent when so many of the NHL’s best are sidelined.

Stamkos is part of a suddenly congested pack of elite players vying for the scoring lead, including the Sedin brothers of the Vancouver Canucks, and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, thanks to a bevy of scoring streaks in December.

While Stamkos began the year quietly, with one goal and a pair of assists in his first five games, the Markham, Ontario native has been steadily producing since mid-October, and put up seven points in three games leading up to his league-leading goal. A performance that was good enough to be warrant receiving Barry Melrose’s Mullet of the week. High praise indeed.

With 37 points in 32 games, Stamkos is on now pace to finish with 51 goals and 95 points, in line with many preseason estimates.

Stamkos’ plus/minus now leads the Lightning by eight points, which is particularly impressive considering his team’s defensive struggles; most of his benchmates are minus-players. This vast improvement suggests that Stamkos has solidified his two-way play, something that he has been working on since last winter.

With Martin St. Louis sidelined with an eye injury, how has this impacted Stamkos’ scoring? (Andy Martin Jr)

The Absence of Martin St. Louis

What has made Stamkos’ most recent scoring push so impressive is that he is doing it without Martin St. Louis.

“I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t see out of my left eye, how the blood rushed through the eye.” Martin St. Louis after being struck in the face with a puck

Fellow Lightning, Dominic Moore, hit St. Louis in the face with a backhand shot taken during practice on December 8 at Madison Square Garden prior to a game against the New York Rangers. The 35-year-old instantly knew the injury was serious. After the puck struck his face, St. Louis said “when that one hit me, I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t see out of my left eye, how the blood rushed through the eye. Panic set in.”

St. Louis left the arena by ambulance and was treated for a broken nose and a hairline fracture of the orbital bone. He is now skating again, and St. Louis may rejoin the Lightning sooner than first expected.

Stamkos in Position to Take Scoring Lead

Despite the loss of St. Louis, the Lightning have won three of the five games since his sidelining. And while Stamkos registered no points in the two games immediately following St.Louis’ injury, he caught fire against New Jersey, scoring two goals and adding an assist.

Hockey experts have often linked Stamkos’ success with St. Louis, with the veteran serving as both as a mentor and as a linemate. The point surge in the absence of the St. Louis suggests that, like his defensive play, Stamkos’ offensive abilities are evolving.

St. Louis commented on this growth recently saying that in the wake of recent injuries to the Lightning, the young center has “taken charge and wants to be a difference maker.”

Stamkos is currently two points behind the NHL scoring lead, but the scoring summit is crowded with four skaters sharing the lead at 39 points.

Of those four, Giroux has been injured (but returned against Dallas on 21 December), Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs has cooled dramatically since his torrid start in October, but both Malkin and Henrik Sedin are riding hot streaks similar to Stamkos. Malkin owns an impressive six-game, fifteen-point streak and looks like the league’s most dangerous skater at the moment.

Henrik’s brother, Daniel, has 38 points, while Stamkos’ 37 points are matched by Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks and Jason Spezza of the surprising Ottawa Senators.

The NHL presents the Art Ross Trophy to the player who scores the most points during the regular season. Both Sedin brothers and Malkin have each won the Art Ross in turn over the past three seasons.

The Lightning have five games remaining before the end of the month, so Stamkos has ample opportunity to grab the scoring lead to begin the new year, but he’ll have to keep up his scoring pace if he is to emerge on top.

Bolts’ fans would be delighted to see their young sniper atop the heap, but with the scoring race suddenly hot for the holidays, the NHL can already claim a victory with its established stars making headlines for on-ice successes, rather than on-ice catastrophes.