Remember when Steven Stamkos scored 60 goals last season? In 2012-13, he's actually scoring at an even greater rate.
With his third-period, game-winning goal in the third period of the Tampa Bay Lightning's 3-2 win against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night, Stamkos became the first player to reach the 20-goal mark this season and he scored it in his 26th game.
On his way to 60 goals in 2011-12, he didn't score his 20th goal until game 32.
It's easy to forget Stamkos is just 23 years old and still figuring things out in the NHL. It was March 2 when the game's top goal scorer over the previous three seasons learned a hard lesson that cost the Lightning a game.
With the score tied 2-2 on the road late in the third period against the Boston Bruins, Stamkos led a shorthanded 3-on-2 rush, carrying the puck along the right wing. He ripped a shot that missed the far side of the net, rimmed around the boards, and sent the Bruins away on a 2-on-1 chance.
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Afterward, Lightning coach Guy Boucher wasn't happy with his defense jumping into the rush in that situation, but he was just as displeased with his superstar's wide shot that served as an outlet pass for the Bruins.
"We're not thinking the right thing on that one," Boucher said. "It hits the net, no problem. We've seen this a thousand times. … I knew that if the puck misses the net, it goes right around, and that's exactly what happened. I've seen this so many times. We can't do that. We just can't do that. That's what we get."
Stamkos entered 2012-13 averaging 52 goals per season over the previous three. Despite reaching an elite level at such a young age, he proved his willingness to quickly adjust and improve in the five games that followed the Bruins debacle.
Through his first 21 games, Stamkos missed the net 35 times. That comes with the territory of being a sniper and high-volume shooter -- not every shot will hit the target -- but it had him among the League's worst in that category. In his past five games, he has missed the net twice while scoring five goals.
Incidentally, those two misses were harmless -- one was against the Winnipeg Jets when Stamkos shanked a shot from in tight and the other occurred Tuesday when he flubbed a backhand shot with an empty net in the final seconds against the Panthers.
It's a scary thought, but Stamkos is actually getting better.
NHL players tend to hit their prime right around the age of 25, yet here's Stamkos, who has been 23 for a month, in his fifth season improving on his 60-goal campaign. Twenty goals in 26 games put him on a pace for 63 goals in an 82-game season, and he's doing it with a career-best shooting percentage of 22.0. He's also on pace for 120 points in an 82-game season, 23 more than his career best of 97 a year ago.
Stamkos made a name for himself during his 51-goal season of 2009-10 by driving home most of them with one-timers from the left face-off circle. His scoring from that area was so frequent that it became known as the Stamkos Spot, but he's continued to evolve his game and no longer relies on his heavy, accurate one-timer to get his goals.
Five of his 20 goals this season have come from that spot, four during power plays, with the fifth with the Lightning goaltender pulled for an extra attacker. A greater percentage of his goals this season have come on the power play -- 7 of 20 after 12 of 60 last season -- but he's getting most of his goals from right around the crease or from between the hash marks.
Center - TBL
GOALS: 20 | ASST: 18 | PTS: 38
SOG: 91 | +/-: -2
His 20 goals this season have been more about consistency and less about scoring onslaughts. His longest stretch without a goal has been five games and he has failed to score in nine games. He has goal-scoring streaks of five, six and he's on a three-game goal-scoring run. He has yet to register a hat trick in 2012-13; he had four in his previous two seasons.
None of Stamkos' 20 goals this season have been placed into an empty net.
Despite scoring at a career-best pace this season, 50 goals is very likely out of the question and 40 will be tough to reach. He's on pace for 37 goals, but that's with a shooting percentage that's about 5 percent higher than his career average. Stamkos is averaging 3.5 shots per game this season, a slight dip from his 3.7 last season, so he'd likely have to raise his shooting percentage even higher or start hitting the net with greater frequency.
That doesn't mean Stamkos can't catch fire over his final 22 games and reach 40 or 50 goals. With elite playmaker Martin St. Louis feeding him the puck and excellent passers Teddy Purcell and Vincent Lecavalier on the ice with him at times, no number is unreachable, especially if Stamkos continues to learn and grow at an incredible rate and has a similar finish to last season, when he had 10 goals in his final nine games.