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Already a scorer, Stamkos emerging as a leader

by Dan Rosen
So there they were, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, hanging out at St. Louis' house in Tampa earlier this month when the television got flipped to the NHL Network.

The picture coming through the screen was crystal clear to both of them, and it had nothing to do with the high-definition quality.

"Game 7 was on," Stamkos told

That would be Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals.

For some reason St. Louis and Stamkos couldn't look away, even after Boston's Nathan Horton scored the only goal of the game with 7:33 to play in regulation -- the goal that put the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final and sent the Lightning home.

"We kept it on for the last 10 minutes," Stamkos said. "I said to him when the game was over, 'Marty, we should show the last minute of the game right before we play this year just as a reminder of how close we were and how much it sucks that we lost.'"

Buzz is back in Tampa

A year ago Steven Stamkos could go out for dinner in Tampa and for the most part have a private night. He could walk through the airport and maybe be spotted by one or two people, but otherwise feel like a normal traveler.

Not anymore.

After falling one goal short of the Stanley Cup Final last spring, the Lightning once again are a big deal in Tampa. Stamkos, who was 14 years old when Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004, is learning what success means in his new hometown.

He loves it.

"It became one of the best hockey places I've played in or seen from a fan perspective," Stamkos said of what Tampa was like during the playoffs last season. "You heard the stories of what it was like in '04 when they won it, but we hadn't seen that yet. We hadn't given the fans a reason to see that yet. We weren't a great team. We weren't winning games. But that buzz came around town about halfway through last year and it was great. We were winning hockey games and that's what fans want to see. When it became playoff time, it was crazy. There were 21,000 fans in that rink and they were loud. It was an unbelievable atmosphere."

Stamkos said he's getting stopped -- or at least noticed -- almost everywhere he goes these days. People want to talk about the Lightning's playoff run last season and how they can't wait to see what this team can do next.

"We are getting notoriety around town," he said. "People are stopping us, whereas before we could go to the mall or out for dinner and one out of maybe 20 people would recognize you. Now there is a buzz and we have to build off of that."

-- Dan Rosen
It was a heck of an idea from the 21-year-old scoring sensation, the kind you would expect to hear from a team's veteran leader.

If Stamkos sticks to his word, we'll soon be hearing more about how he's leading the Lightning.

Stamkos is entering his fourth NHL season since the Lightning selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft. He's comfortable in the League and with his superstar status, but now that he's impressed with his ability, he's looking to inspire with his actions.

"I've seen two coaching changes, an ownership change, a new GM, and now getting to within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final," Stamkos said. "I'd like to think I know how to deal with those situations now. I like to think I've grown as a person and as a player. The next step for me is I want to take on more of a leadership role on this team. That's the plan."

It's a plan that works for the Lightning.

Stamkos again is expected to be one of the youngest players on the team, but his age doesn't matter nearly as much as his stature. He's the face of the franchise, the team's leading scorer, a Hart Trophy candidate, and this summer he signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract.

No one is saying he needs to wear a letter on his sweater over Vincent Lecavalier, St. Louis and Mattias Ohlund, but Stamkos is dead-on when he says the time has come for him to take on a leadership role.

"Yes, it's something we need," Lightning coach Guy Boucher told "He has always led in terms of what he has done on the ice, but there is the type of leader that pulls others and that's the most powerful one. He has the tools to pull others."

Boucher said he saw that ability in Stamkos after the All-Star break last season, when he went through a prolonged scoring slump.

After proving to be virtually unstoppable prior to the break (38 goals in 51 games), Stamkos scored only seven times in the Lightning's final 31 games. He slogged through goal-scoring slumps of five and six games multiple times each.

"Everybody reminds you of how many goals you have, but the reality is your job is to make your team better, and scoring is one aspect of the game," Boucher said. "It's a team game and his job is to inspire his teammates with what he does. You don't inspire by scoring a goal; you impress people. You inspire people with character, attitude, work ethic and by going beyond what the normal person does. That's what I found in him. He inspired me when I saw him dealing with adversity.

"The fact that he went through a slump, battled through it, kept his composure through it and his attitude was excellent through it -- to me, that's part of his learning process of becoming a man in this game, going from being a star to being a winner."

Boucher added that Stamkos learned how to be a winner in the playoffs. Stamkos agreed, but it wasn't easy.

"I think my first shift, Brooks Orpik put me through the glass and it was like, 'OK, we're in the playoffs,'" Stamkos said. "It's a totally different game, and I have no problem telling people that. You can hear the stories, but until you play in a game, you don't know what it's all about."

Stamkos didn't feel confident until the third round, when the Lightning faced the Bruins. He had 6 points in 11 games heading into the Eastern Conference Finals, but topped that with 7 points in the seven-game series against the Bruins.

"I felt like I was contributing the way I wanted to in that series," Stamkos said. "It just takes you a while to get adjusted. It's like when I first came into the League. It took 20 or 30 games to get adjusted to the game, and you don't have that much time in the playoffs."

It didn't help that he was playing with a broken sternum, an injury Stamkos suffered in the first round against the Penguins.

"I think my first shift, Brooks Orpik put me through the glass and it was like, 'OK, we're in the playoffs.' It's a totally different game, and I have no problem telling people that. You can hear the stories, but until you play in a game, you don't know what it's all about."
-- Steven Stamkos

"Nobody knew that. It's not something you want to scream to the world," Boucher said. "If people would have known he was playing with a broken sternum … he was very impressive and intense, and he gained the respect of the players."

It was a career-changing season for Stamkos -- he learned how to persevere through a scoring slump and how to play through pain. He learned what it's like to sniff the ultimate dream, and how much it hurts when it gets snatched away from you.

Stamkos now wants to be the player that leads the Lightning over the final few hurdles to the shiny silver chalice at the end of the race.

He's ready for the next phase of his career.

"We took the Stanley Cup champs to a Game 7 and lost 1-0 in a game that could have gone either way, in a series that could have gone either way," Stamkos said. "You can always reminisce, but heading into this year I know what I have to do to help my team get over the hump and get to the Final.

"I'm ready to be that guy that guys can count on."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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