TAMPA -- Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos made good on his promise to embrace the challenge in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Montreal Canadiens at Amalie Arena on Tuesday.
Stamkos had at least one point in each of the previous four games, but he hadn't had a signature performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He did not score in the first eight games, which included a seven-game series victory against the Detroit Red Wings in the first round.
But Stamkos showed the speed, skill and determination Tuesday that have made him one of the NHL's top stars. He seemed to be creating chances on every shift and when Alex Killorn gave Stamkos an opportunity to put a wrist shot past Canadiens goalie Carey Price, he buried it to give the Lightning a two-goal lead in a game they went on to win, 4-1.
"We mixed some lines up and it looks like I had a little more room in the past two games," Stamkos said. "It was a great play by Killorn and I just tried to snap one off."
Stamkos will return to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2011. The Lightning will face the winner of Game 7 between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, which takes place Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. Stamkos was one of two players on the Lightning's roster that was on the team in 2011 when Tampa Bay lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games.
On that team, Stamkos was following the lead set by former teammates Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. This time he will be the focal point of the Lightning and the opposition.
"It's exciting. I've always talked about 2011 was the most fun I've ever had playing this game," Stamkos said. "Obviously I want a little better result this time, but this group has been resilient all year. We've got a guy like [Ben Bishop] back in the net; we've got to believe that anything's possible here. [We're] obviously going to be paying close attention to this game [Wednesday], and we're excited."
Stamkos wouldn't say if he'd rather face the Rangers or Capitals, but the Lightning have to be considered a tough matchup for either team as long as he continues to play like he did Tuesday.
Defenseman Anton Stralman said he could tell within the first shift of the game that Stamkos was going to be tough to stop.
Center - TBL
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 10
SOG: 34 | +/-: 2
"He's fun to watch when he's on his game like that," Stralman said. "His explosiveness and his skating and the way he moves the puck … he' fast. It doesn't seem like there are any obstacles in his way. He just figures it out so fast. And with that shot, he's always a threat."
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Stamkos' leadership shined through when the series became tighter. With right wing Ryan Callahan out after having an emergency appendectomy, Cooper changed the lines and put Stamkos on the wing with Valtteri Filppula playing center.
The move paid off Tuesday; Stamkos was often speeding toward the net when he took possession of the puck. He had four shots on goal, but his energy clearly had the Canadiens' defenders on their heels.
"He's gotten better as the playoffs have moved on," Cooper said of Stamkos, who led the Lightning with 43 goals during the regular season. "He was under a little bit of scrutiny in the Detroit series because he didn't score, but that's the playoffs. When [Stamkos] wasn't scoring, he came through in other big areas and he scored the most timely goals for us. You're not going to keep him down.
"There’s a reason he's scored 250 goals and is one of the fastest in the League to do it. I moved him to the wing and I'm sure deep down inside he wasn't a fan of it, but he wanted to do what was best for the team."