When Steven Stamkos is on the ice, he is the focus. Not only of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but of their opponents.
Stamkos is one of the best goal-scorers on the planet, meaning not only are the Lightning constantly looking to get him the puck, but other teams are game-planning to deny him possession.
It's a chess match, and one that requires coach Jon Cooper to create ways to get Stamkos the time and space he needs to be successful.
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The Boston Bruins see plenty of the Lightning as an Atlantic Division rival. When the teams play Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN1, NESN) with serious playoff implications at stake, the Bruins will use forward Patrice Bergeron and defenseman Zdeno Chara to try to slow Stamkos. Tampa Bay, as it always does, will do its best to eliminate those speed bumps.
Stamkos has played the majority of this season at even-strength with right wing Ryan Callahan. At left wing he's seen time with Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula. Lately, rookie Jonathan Drouin has been playing with Stamkos. The constant is that Stamkos' linemates make it a point to get him the puck. That comes as no surprise; it's the process of getting it to him and allowing him to create scoring chances that is more difficult.
"When you have a guy like Stamkos, who's a world-class scorer and one of the best if not the best, it takes a lot of pressure off you," said forward Tyler Johnson, who plays on Tampa Bay's second line. "Some coaches might match up against us, but most coaches go against Stamkos."
Stamkos and his line see many top defense pairings on a nightly basis. Callahan excels at winning puck battles along the wall. Drouin, a fast skater with the puck on his stick, can draw attention with his speed. Together their skills complement Stamkos in the sense of the space it allows him. On this goal against the Philadelphia Flyers, Stamkos is able to find an opening and Filppula is able to find Stamkos.
As Stamkos carries the puck into the zone he draws two skaters toward him. Four Flyers are in the same half of the ice as Stamkos, so he sends the puck across to Filppula and then proceeds to go to the net.
Part of what Stamkos does to find space is go into the areas where the puck isn't. That sounds simple, but as Filppula carries the puck below the goal line, almost like a wheel play, Stamkos rotates out toward the opposite circle.
As Filppula brings the puck above the goal line, Stamkos is in the middle of five Flyers. Identifying Philadelphia has to shade toward Filppula, Stamkos glides into the soft spot of the zone, distancing himself from the puck and the play, and creating space.
On the power play things are a bit different. Stamkos has a bit of Ovechkin in him in that you always wonder how he gets so open and in position to take a shot.
"The biggest thing is Stamkos has such a great shot and such a quick release that he's able to find those soft areas," Johnson said.
On this power-play goal against the Florida Panthers, Johnson is able to find an uncovered Stamkos for a one-timer.
Stamkos again finds himself in the middle of the defense. A right-handed shot, Stamkos makes his way to the left side of the zone while Tampa Bay keeps the puck on the right side.
Johnson has possession of the puck with time and space, and Florida is denying him a passing lane to Stamkos. But by attacking the teeth of the defense, which forces the Panthers to break their posture, and Stamkos drifting higher in the circle, Tampa Bay creates a new passing lane.
Now Stamkos is alone in a dangerous shooting position with all four Florida penalty killers on the opposite side.
"If he gets that extra inch away from a defender and they're able to get him the puck, it's usually in the back of the net," Johnson said.
The margin for error when defending against Stamkos is incredibly small. Tampa Bay does things specifically to get Stamkos his time and space, and the most difficult part for the opposition is that he doesn't need much of it to turn a play into a goal.