-- This is the Steven Stamkos
the Tampa Bay Lightning
believed he could be in his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut. It's the same Stamkos the Pittsburgh Penguins
worried he might be.
Suddenly, with the Lightning's big scorers all going at the same time, a playoff series that looked to be over might only be starting.
Stamkos, at age 21, spent the first four playoff games of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals answering questions about his health – was he hurt or not? – and his inability to score. He had a single assist as Pittsburgh opened up a 3-1 series lead by winning Games 3 and 4 in Tampa.
But as coach Guy Boucher
related following Stamkos' breakout two-goal, three-point game Saturday – an 8-2 Lightning victory on Pittsburgh's home ice in Game 5 -- those questions weren't coming from the coaching staff.
Or, apparently, from Stamkos himself.
Stamkos insisted he didn't doubt himself even after he wasn't credited with a single shot in 30-plus minutes during Pittsburgh's 3-2, double-overtime win in Game 4.
"To me, the last game was when he figured it out," Boucher said. "He's a youngster, there's a lot of pressure on his shoulders, having to deal with the only real slump he's had at this level. I really liked his attitude. Even though he was having a hard time scoring, he stayed with it.
"Scoring two goals was the result of him going to the net a lot more often instead of him waiting for an outside shot."
And, maybe, of Stamkos growing up in a hurry during a series in which Pittsburgh – a Stanley Cup Finalist in 2008 and 2009 – has a substantial edge in playoff experience. Stamkos is one of nine Lightning players appearing in their first postseason round.
To Boucher, all it took was a little time, a little patience -- and resisting the urge to tug a little too hard too soon.
"If you've got a flower and you want it to grow, if you pull on it, it ain't going to grow faster," Boucher said. "It takes time and experience. I think the games we've played up until now – and not just him -- it's learning and maturing."
Stamkos' first goal was the result of doing what Boucher asked him to do by going to the net, and staying there.
With defenseman Paul Martin
and Zbynek Michalek
shadowing him, Stamkos gathered a rebound of Steve Downie
's shot from the point and deftly put a backhander past Marc-Andre Fleury
to make it 2-0 late in the first period. Simon Gagne
had given Tampa Bay the lead by scoring 46 seconds before.
Early in the second, Stamkos helped make it 3-0 by setting up Vincent Lecavalier
's second goal of the series. Following Gagne's second goal, Stamkos scored again off a rebound for Tampa Bay's third goal in the opening seven minutes of the second period. It was 5-0, and it was over.
Those two goals were a reminder of how Stamkos scored 45 goals en route to a 91-point season, despite getting just seven in his final 32 regular-season games.
"I wanted to, obviously, be part of this team's success in the playoffs and prove to myself and my team I could play in these pressure situations," Stamkos said. "I just felt each and every game I was getting better and better, but it wasn't showing up on the score sheet. It was nice to get rewarded, especially in a game of this magnitude."
So did all of Tampa Bay's big four scorers -- Martin St. Louis
, Stamkos, Lecavalier and Gagne combined for the Lightning's first five goals and nine points.
The Penguins, failing for the fifth consecutive time to close out a playoff series at home, were hoping to get through the opening round before Stamkos found his game. They may have waited too long.
"They got one and then two quick and then, after that, we kind of stopped playing," forward Max Talbot said. "That's unacceptable in the playoffs."
Now, after winning twice in as many games in Pittsburgh, the Lightning must win at home for the first time if they are to return to Consol Energy Center for Game 7.
Game 6 is Monday night.
"To beat Pittsburgh, which has more experience than us, we have to learn real fast," Boucher said. "And we're learning."
Especially that kid named Stamkos.