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Stamkos, Malone, Niittymaki Among NHL Elite

by Amanda Harris / Tampa Bay Lightning

Confidence Making The Difference In Stamkos' Sophomore Season

With 25 points under their belts to date (November 23) and the 2009-10 season just over one-quarter complete, the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves sitting pretty in second place within the Southeast Division, tied for fifth in the Eastern Conference.

When the coaching staff has confidence in you and you're playing a lot of minutes, you're able to go out there and have confidence in yourself." - Steven Stamkos
With those game winners, you always want to be that guy to get that goal... you're always digging a little deeper." - Ryan Malone
Every time you go out there you don't want to think about winning or losing, especially not losing. You just go out and play the 60 minutes and see what happens." - Antero Niittymaki

As opposed to years past, when the Bolts have leaned on Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier to lead the charge, this year sees Ryan Malone, Antero Nittymaki and Steven Stamkos joining together with them to push the team towards the top of the conference

Currently tops among the Lightning with 15 goals and tied with Marty St. Louis for a team-best 24 points, Stamkos has stealthily emerged as one of the NHL’s most lethal offensive weapons.

His early season stockpile of markers is just three shy of the league-high (18) held by San Jose’s Dany Heatley and two behind snipers Marian Gaborik and Alex Ovechkin. Additionally, the six power play tallies Stamkos has put on the board currently have him deadlocked in a three-way tie for third in the league.

He’s literally seated himself next to Ovechkin on the highlight reels as well, tallying the Bolts’ second goal of the night in Anaheim swatting the puck out of mid-air and past the goaltender while sliding across the ice on his backside.

And while he readily admits it’s flattering to see his own name up there with some of the league’s most skilled scorers, Stamkos has avoided letting the recognition go to his head, instead using his early season success to push his own personal development as a member of the Lightning.

“Sure it’s a bit surreal to see yourself mentioned with a player like Ovechkin, especially when you’ve worked hard to be up there,” he explains. “But at the same time you’ve got to realize you can be that type of player. You want to be a guy who can go out there every night and get points and score goals and be counted on to help his team.”

Which is precisely was he’s been doing as Tampa Bay’s 2009-10 campaign rounds the quarter pole. To be certain, it’s not just the goals that make number 91 such a force. Averaging just over a point per game, Stamkos’ consistent production is good enough to tie him for seventh in the league (tied with four others) while his 11th ranked shooting percentage (22.4) finds him just outside the top ten.

Add the fact that Stamkos is locked in a third place tie with Ilya Kovalchuk (32) among all goal scorers since February 12, 2009, (with only Ovechkin-35 and Heatley-35 boasting a greater output), and it’s a relative certainty the young gun hasn’t let a fear of the dreaded sophomore slump slow him down in this, his second NHL season.

In fact he has cross-checked the age-old notion right across the nose in continuing to build on the success he saw in the latter half of 2008-09,  pushing him to set a franchise rookie record by potting 23 goals.

Seeing as his pace since setting the milestone hasn’t slowed down, it’s only natural one ask what’s made the difference for the 19-year old who spent the summer training with ex-Lightning player Gary Roberts after putting on a show at the World Championships in June.

“Obviously everything has a lot to do with confidence. When the coaching staff has confidence in you and you’re playing a lot of minutes, you’re able to go out there and have confidence in yourself. I think that’s the biggest difference from last year,” he says, adding that it is indeed rewarding to see his offseason labor bear fruit on the ice for the Lightning.

Despite all of the hard work and dedication however, the former first overall pick (2008) is unrelenting in his insistence that such success could not have been achieved without the help of Lightning teammates like Ryan Malone, whose physical presence is no doubt complimenting Stamkos’ budding career.

The pair, currently reigning over the NHL with a league-best teammate total of 29 combined goals (Malone-14), has most certainly benefited from an inherent-brand of chemistry. Just as impressive however is the fact that, even when taken off the same line, their production does not slow down.

More Than Just Lucky Bounces For Opportunistic Malone

While Stamkos prefers to sink his saucers from favorite locales like the top of the slot and right circle, Malone earns his living in front of the net. Indeed it is this crease-crashing tendency that finds the former Penguin off to a quick start and at the top of his game.

“I think it’s pretty simple, really. I just try to go to the net more, grab the garbage. I’ve been fortunate enough to get some bounces playing with some great players here in Tampa,” the self-deprecating winger explains.

Second only to Stamkos in goals and just two shy of Stamkos and St. Louis’ point tallies; team-best, Malone has quietly ascended to the top of the class with a league-leading count of four game-winning goals. Though it’s an honor he currently shares with three others around the league, the measure is one that no doubt illustrates Malone’s willingness to get his hands dirty as well as his adeptness at performing in the clutch.

“With those game winners, you always want to be that guy to get that goal…you’re always digging a little deeper,” he admits.

Much the same as the always opportunistic Malone, Antero Niittymaki has a knack for being in the right place at the right time what with the Tampa Bay newbie taking to his netminder responsibilities like a full-throttle St. Louis takes to a shorthanded breakaway.

Fresh Start Going Well for Netminder Niittymaki

In his last six starts, Niittymaki has posted a 4-0-2 record and currently boasts a league-best save percentage of .936. So solid has the Finn’s backstopping been for Tampa Bay that his goals against average (2.02) is strong enough to rank third among all NHL goalies.

“Things are going well obviously and it’s a fresh start for me after seven years in Philly,” he says. “Every time you go out there you don’t want to think about winning or losing, especially not losing. You just go out and play the 60 minutes and see what happens.”

And what’s happened is that Niittymaki has essentially taken the ball and run with it. Whether standing on his head to salvage a point for the squad or simply minding the crease for a particularly productive offense, the ex-Flyer’s consistency has been remarkable.

“Sure there have been a couple of games where I had to be really good and there were a couple games where we kind of came back last second and got a point,” says the netminder who keeps it simple by taking a game by game approach.

Other than the anticipation of perhaps getting a few more starts now that he’s proven himself an infallible presence between the pipes, Niittymaki is resolute in insisting his expectations haven’t changed since being signed by Tampa Bay to serve as Mike Smith’s backup.

“It’s a long year and we’ve got two good goalies that are always happy to get their ice time,” he says.

As for whether or not the force that backstopped his homeland to an Olympic Silver Medal in 2006 has Team Finland aspirations this winter, Niittymaki will only let on that while it would be an honor to represent his country for a second time, the race is a tight one and not something he is necessarily thinking about.

Similarly, Malone (USA) and Stamkos (Canada), both of whom also have very realistic chances of making their respective Olympic squads, echo Niittymaki’s sentiments and aren’t letting the hype surrounding Vancouver 2010 eclipse their commitment to uphold Tampa Bay’s team-first concept.

Numbers and accolades aside, this trio of top performers is the very embodiment of Tampa Bay’s “Together We Will” mantra. Theirs is a commitment to bring out the best in each and every member of the Lightning squad and something a wise beyond his years Stamkos is able to sum up best.

“You can’t really do anything on your own. It’s a team game. Everyone’s got to feed off each other because a successful team is one where the team comes first.”

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