Tampa Bay Lightning
fans had to wait exactly three months from the time Steven Stamkos
was drafted with the first pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft until he made his debut on the ice against the defending Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins
on Saturday night.
It turned out to be worth every minute.
Stamkos was held off the scoresheet for 60 minutes of regulation play and 5 minutes of overtime, but he showed an early flair for the dramatic with a shootout goal that put an end to Saturday’s preseason opener for both teams and gave the Lightning a 5-4 victory at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh.
It was a long way from Scotiabank Place in Ottawa, where Stamkos was selected No. 1 by Tampa Bay on June 20, but the 18-year-old center who lit up the Ontario Hockey League as a member of the Sarnia Sting looked right at home. Although he saw areas in his game where he will need to improve, overall he appeared to be comfortable playing on the big stage.
“Its just the little things, but I was skating well and the physicality was not an issue,” Stamkos said. “So I will just keep working on those little things and they should keep getting better and better each time I step on the ice.”
Stamkos skated in on Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and put a wrist shot in the back of the net to finish things off. Jussi Jokinen had scored in the first round of the shootout for the Lightning, while goalie Karri Ramo stopped Pittsburgh shooters Miroslav Satan and Evgeni Malkin.
Stamkos, who is expected to center Tampa Bay’s second line, was on the ice to begin the game, centering a line with Ryan Craig and Michel Ouellet. He beat Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby on the opening faceoff and went on to take a total of 26 shifts, totaling 21 minutes, 41 seconds of ice time, while recording two shots on goal.
“I was obviously a little nervous facing off against Sidney Crosby, but I won the draw so I was pretty happy about that,” Stamkos said. “When that puck drops, you forget about all the jitters and just go out there and play.”
Stamkos was on the ice for only one goal, Crosby’s shorthanded tally with 2:54 left in the third period that gave the Penguins a 4-3 lead. Brandon Bochenski netted his second of the night with 1:19 remaining to knot the score and send the game into overtime.
Stamkos acquitted himself well in the faceoff circle, winning 10 of 18 draws, including 3 of 4 in the defensive zone. Stamkos found himself facing off most often against Crosby and prevailed on 5 of 9 faceoffs against the No. 1 player taken in the 2005 Draft.
New Lightning coach Barry Melrose said prior to the game that the expectations for Stamkos this season wouldn’t be measured in goals and assists as much as the effort he puts in both on and off the ice.
“All I expect of him is to come in and work as hard as he can every night,” Melrose said. “That’s what he’s been doing his whole life since he was 10-years-old, so we’re not expecting him to carry this team or be the best player, but we expect him to be the hardest working 18-year-old on the Tampa Bay Lightning. If he does that, we'll get some results.”
Stamkos exploded for 58 goals and 105 points for Sarnia last season, and had six points in seven games during Canada’s gold medal-winning effort at the 2008 World Junior Championships. He’s aware of the recent success some players have enjoyed in their first NHL seasons and while he’s not getting ahead of himself, he plans to do a lot more than just take up a locker in the Lightning dressing room.
“I think sticking in the NHL is the biggest goal of mine right now,” Stamkos said. “It’s one thing to go to training camp and get a sniff of the NHL, but it’s another to stay a full season. If I’m able to do that, I’m definitely going to have greater expectations for myself to produce. I’m known as an offensive player and I definitely want to put up some reasonable numbers. You look at Patrick Kane (Chicago), Sam Gagner (Edmonton) and Jonathan Toews (Chicago) and how they were able to step in and put up some pretty good numbers in their first seasons. Hopefully, I can follow in their footsteps.”
"I think sticking in the NHL is the biggest goal of mine right now. It’s one thing to go to training camp and get a sniff of the NHL, but it’s another to stay a full season." -- Lightning center Steven Stamkos
Petr Sykora notched a pair of power-play goals to rally the Penguins from a 3-1 deficit. Jordan Staal opened the scoring just 51 seconds into the game, the first for Pittsburgh since a Game 6 loss to the Detroit Red Wings that put an end to last season’s Stanley Cup Final.
Tampa Bay lit the lamp three times in a span of 4:50 during the second period. Janne Niskala and Wyatt Smith started the burst and Bochenski would complete it at the 8:40 mark.
Both Ramo and Fleury went the distance in goal and each stopped 26 of 30 shots faced during regulation and overtime.
Sergei Gonchar, the Penguins’ top defenseman, left the game in the first period after a hit from David Koci. He didn’t return, and the Penguins didn’t provide information about any injury he might have suffered.
Tampa Bay sat many of its top veterans, most notably new captain Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. Eleven players in the Lightning lineup appeared in seven games or less at the NHL level last season.
The Lightning will open the regular season against the Rangers in two weeks with a two-game series in Prague.