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Stamkos leading Lightning charge, nearing 50 goals

by Ben Raby

WASHINGTON -- Nearly three years after Alex Ovechkin celebrated his 50th goal of the 2008-09 season at then-called St. Pete Times Forum, Steven Stamkos has the chance to return the favor Thursday night at Verizon Center as the Tampa Bay Lightning visit the Washington Capitals.

Stamkos leads the NHL with 48 goals and is tied with Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin with 81 points. The 22-year-old Stamkos has been on a tear of late with 11 goals and 19 points in his last 10 games.

The Lightning have won four of five games and seven of 10 overall to climb back into the Eastern Conference playoff race and Stamkos may be the biggest reason. The 11th-place Lightning have pulled within four points of eighth-place Winnipeg and they sit two points behind ninth-place Washington.

"I think he's upped his game to not just that superstar status, but to that elite [status], like when [Ovechkin] had 65 goals," said Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, teammates with Stamkos at the 2008 World Junior Championship.

"I remember we played them at home last time and he had half a second in front of the net to score a goal and shoot the puck and he shoots it post and in like it's so easy, like he's sleeping doing it. He's just one of those guys, there's a reason why he's there. He's hard to stop."

Alzner referenced Stamkos scoring from in front of the net, and those around Stamkos acknowledge that with more teams taking away his patented one-timer from the left faceoff circle, more of his goals are coming from around the blue paint.

"He'll score some goals on the power play, but it's not his one-timer from the side anymore on the power play, it's his entire game," Lightning coach Guy Boucher explained.

"He's taken this quest of becoming a complete player and a winner very, very seriously and that's why he's benefitting from scoring from all angles, all kinds of situations -- whether it's a breakaway, two-on-one, wraparound, screen, tip, jam. He does it all."

For Stamkos, becoming a complete player also involved improving his play at even-strength. With more teams taking away his one-timer on the power play, Stamkos has adjusted accordingly. His 38 even-strength goals this season are already second most since the 2005 work stoppage, behind only Ovechkin's 43 in 2007-08.

"There are a lot of good players in this League and when you've played in the League for a while, people pick up on things," Stamkos said.

"They pick up on where you score from, what you like to do when you're in the offensive zone, so you have to make adjustments and be able to adapt to your surroundings. It's about finding ways to score more goals five-on-five, or scoring more goals around the net, whether it's a rebound or a tip. So for me it was something that I wanted to adjust. As you mature throughout your career, you'll always keep finding new ways to get opportunities."

With Vincent Lecavalier missing his ninth straight game tonight because of an upper-body injury, and the February trades of Steve Downie, Dominic Moore and Pavel Kubina, even more weight has been placed on Stamkos' broad shoulders.

But along with Teddy Purcell, who enters play on a 10-game point streak, and Martin St. Louis (6 goals, 5 assists in his last 10 games), Tampa Bay's No. 1 line has responded.

"I put that pressure on myself regardless of who is in the lineup," Stamkos said. "Obviously it's magnified now with the trades that we made and with Vinny out and Heddy out for a while -- it was nice to get him back last game -- but for right now for Teddy, Marty and I, we realize that we need to score goals to help our team win and we like that pressure."
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