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Stamkos driven to finish job for Lightning against Capitals

Looks to help Tampa Bay close out Eastern Final in Game 6

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

TAMPA -- This could be his last shot at a Stanley Cup.

Or not.

That's the internal debate Steven Stamkos grapples with every morning during this prolonged Stanley Cup Playoffs run. The Tampa Bay Lightning forward asks himself if the next few weeks will bring him the one elusive goal he so thirsts for.

 

[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

"You have to look at it like: 'Is this the last opportunity?' Because opportunities like this are so few and far between," Stamkos said.

"With some of the injuries I've had, you have a new perspective on your career as an individual and you have a new perspective of when you get the opportunity to play on a team of this caliber. You just never know. You need so many things to go your way in the playoffs when you go on a run to get where you are now."

The Lightning are one victory from the Stanley Cup Final. Tampa Bay leads the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Final 3-2 against the Washington Capitals heading into Game 6 at Capital One Arena in Washington on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN1, TVAS).

As he and his teammates prepared to fly to Washington on a soggy Tampa Sunday morning, Stamkos was reminded how precious the chance is to get back to a Cup Final.

His one previous visit to a Final came in 2015 when the Lightning lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks. Though the lasting image of that series is Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews hoisting the Cup after the series-clinching 2-0 victory in Game 6, Stamkos contemplates what might have been had he scored on a first-period breakaway instead of clanking the goal post with the game scoreless.

"I still remember the sound," he said. "I don't forget anything."

Video: TBL@WSH, Gm4: Stamkos buries Point's feed for PPG

Least of all the cache of bumps, bruises, tears and fractures he has sustained in his career, some of which cost him a shot at a championship.

There is the steel rod that will forever be in his lower right leg, inserted after he broke his right tibia while getting tangled with Boston Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton and slamming into the goal post at TD Garden on Nov. 13, 2013. The injury cost him a chance to represent Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a dream he'd had since growing up in Markham, Ontario, just north of Toronto.

Adversity struck again when surgery to repair a blood clot April 4, 2016, cost him all but one game of that season's playoffs. He did return for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins but admittedly and understandably was rusty in Tampa Bay's 2-1 loss.

The frustration continued in 2016-17 when a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee ended his season after one month. Whenever he looks at the scar across his right knee, Stamkos is reminded of how the Lightning ended up missing the playoffs.

His is a tale of torn meniscus, a blood clot, a broken leg and broken dreams. Now, 10 years after he entered the League as the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, he covets how close his quest to hoist the Cup is becoming.

Video: TBL@WSH, Gm3: Stamkos blasts one-timer for PPG

There's no way he's taking it for granted.

"He's been through tough times before," said Chris Stamkos, Steven's dad. "He knows what it takes."

When Steven Stamkos was 3, he'd walk with skates on across the dining room rug at the family home in the Markham community of Unionville. It was a way for him to learn how to keep his balance on blades.

"Anything to be a hockey player," he said. "Because that's what I wanted."

He also badly wanted to be on the Toronto Maple Leafs one day. His dad is good friends with Joe Bowen, the play-by-play voice of the Maple Leafs, so young Steven was brought up in a blue-and-white environment.

Video: WSH@TBL, Gm2: Stamkos blasts PPG past Holtby

When the Lightning were poised to pick him in 2008, Bowen gave Stamkos some playful advice.

"Mr. Bowen told me not to go up on stage when my name is called until it's the Leafs' turn to pick," Stamkos joked before the draft.

At that time, there were billboards and bracelets all over the Tampa area with the slogan "Seen Stamkos." His summer baseball team in Unionville, which included Bowen's son, Sean, had fun with it, putting together a team photo with the "Seen Stamkos" motto.

A decade later, Tampa blue and white has replaced Toronto blue and white in his heart. Despite efforts by Toronto mayor John Tory to woo Stamkos to the Maple Leafs in June 2016 when he was a pending unrestricted free agent, he signed an eight-year contract with the Lightning worth $68 million, an average annual value of $8.5 million.

Stamkos points at the nameplates over the lockers in the Tampa Bay dressing room as a significant reason why he stayed.

"You see the core, you see the ability that we have and you see how special it can be," Stamkos said. "You want to be part of that. I saw that here. I knew there was a great window here.

"And now we're on our way right now."

At 28, Stamkos is in the prime of his career. So doesn't it seem far-fetched to think that this might be his last opportunity to sip from the Stanley Cup?

"Not at all," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He's absolutely right. Like he said, we've been close but we've also missed the playoffs. These opportunities don't come around every year. For us, we have to approach every game like our life depends on it."

Video: WSH@TBL, Gm1: Kucherov sets up Stamkos for PPG

Hedman listed the names of several prominent NHLers who never won the Cup.

"Mats Sundin. Markus Naslund. The Sedin twins. Just to name a few guys," Hedman said. "They've been close but they haven't reached all the way.

"We're so fortunate to be one game away to play for the Stanley Cup again. For us to reach that goal, we have to play our best hockey from here on in."

Lightning forward Chris Kunitz has won the Stanley Cup four times: with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, and with Pittsburgh in 2009, 2016 and 2017. He says he never took any of them for granted.

"[Stamkos] is an obvious example of a guy who's had opportunities at different things but shown it doesn't come easy," Kunitz said. "There's adversity you have to fight through in careers. Sometimes it's injuries. Sometimes it's teams that don't perform. Sometimes it's luck that goes against you.

"When you get to that area again, it's kind of surreal. And then it's important to remember how far you'd come and how close you were. I look at each of the wins I was fortunate to be part of, everyone in that locker room thought at the time that it would be our last chance. It's do or die for that moment. And I think that's where our mentality has to be.

"We have one game to reach the Cup Final, And that's where we want to be."

Stamkos has done his part, ranking second in Lightning playoff scoring with 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 15 games. Only linemate Nikita Kucherov has more (seven goals, 10 assists, 17 points).

"Like I said, you never know if it's your last opportunity," Stamkos said. "And if it is, you want to take advantage of it.

***

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