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Lightning's Stamkos focused on enjoying the moment

by Dan Rosen /

TAMPA -- If the right post at TD Garden in Boston never got in his way, never was the guilty party in why Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos broke his right leg early last season, he of course would be fine with that. After all, nobody wants to feel that kind of pain.

But if it never happened, Stamkos said he wouldn't have the same level of appreciation he has now for the journey on which he and his Lightning teammates have embarked.

The Lightning are two wins from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. They lead the New York Rangers 2-1 in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Final, with Game 4 set for Friday at Amalie Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"Just knowing that anything can happen in this sport, anything can happen the next game, it just puts a greater appreciation for what you have and a little more burning desire to leave it all on the ice every shift," Stamkos said Thursday. "You never know what's going to happen."

Last year at this time Stamkos was home in Toronto continuing his rehab from the injury that cost him 45 games in the regular season and prevented him from playing in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which was his dream.

He was able to return and play the final 20 games of the regular season and the four games, all losses, the Lightning played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But he wasn't close to being the same player.

His leg had healed enough to allow him to play but it wasn't healed enough to allow Stamkos play like Stamkos. The Lightning weren't the team they could have been because of it.

They are everything they want to be now. Stamkos is too.

Stamkos had 43 goals in the regular season and helped the Lightning finish with 108 points. He dealt with a slump in the first round of the playoffs against the Detroit Red Wings, when he didn't score on 22 shots on goal. But since then he's heated up to help the Lightning look like world beaters against previously impenetrable Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

Stamkos has four goals and two assists since moving from center to right wing on a line with center Valtteri Filppula and left wing Alex Killorn five games ago. He has five goals and six assists in the past eight games.

The Lightning have scored 12 goals in the past two games, with Stamkos factoring into four of them. He led the Lightning with seven hits in Game 3 on Wednesday, including his crushing body check on Rangers rookie forward Kevin Hayes at 2:08 of the first period.

"I think it's tough for a guy like him; he's always under the microscope," Killorn said. "But I think he was playing well; really good hockey in the first series against Detroit. You're not going to score every night and he realizes that. But he's really found his way here in the last two series."

Stamkos said the move to right wing has been a major reason why he has heated up.

"I think the move just freed me up a bit," Stamkos said.

That's exactly why Lightning coach Jon Cooper made the position switch starting with Game 5 of the second round against the Montreal Canadiens.

"The one thing I thought, he's spending too much time in the [defensive] zone and he's spending way too much energy down there," Cooper said. "So to free him up a little bit and let him get out of the zone a little faster and not have to play the whole 200 feet, I thought [moving to right wing] was something that was going to save his legs and give him a little more time. Maybe we could open up and give him some more space in the neutral zone when he was getting out."

Now Stamkos is one of the first skaters coming out of the defensive zone. Filppula's ability to control the puck, along with Killorn's vastly improved power game on the left side, has allowed Stamkos to find more open ice and get to the front of the net.

"Sometimes it helps playing with different guys," Stamkos said. "It was a little spark and it seemed to work."

Steven Stamkos
Center - TBL
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 14
SOG: 42 | +/-: 3
Stamkos has made it work even though he insists he's a natural center and that's where he's most comfortable. He might be biting his tongue for the betterment of the team, but he's the captain and he knows that's what he has to do.

"It's about sacrifice," Stamkos said. "It's about work ethic. It's about being willing to do anything to help your team win."

That goes back to the level of appreciation Stamkos has for this run.

He went on one of these runs with the Lightning in 2011, reaching Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins. He thought he'd get another crack at the Stanley Cup the following season but the Lightning didn't make the playoffs again until 2014.

Stamkos entered last season thinking he would have a chance to win a gold medal in Sochi. That ended when his right leg crashed into the right post in Boston.

He's healthy now. He's scoring now. He's playing out of position, but so what? That's all part of it.

"For me it's about realizing how close you are to giving yourself a chance to get to the Final," Stamkos said. "And you're willing to do anything to get there."


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