Steven Stamkos made the most of his brief appearance in the Stanley Cup Final last season, authoring one of the most memorable moments of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s championship run.
But the forward is set for the full Stanley Cup Final experience this go-around with the Lightning when they host the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the best-of-7 series Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“For me as a player, you just want to contribute in any way you can,” Stamkos said during Stanley Cup Final media day Sunday. “Last year was a small part. This year, a little bigger part, but as long as you are a part of that group, that’s all you can ask for as an athlete.”
Limited by a core muscle injury that required surgery in October, Stamkos did not play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season until Game 3 of the Final against the Dallas Stars. The Tampa Bay captain captain dramatically scored on a right wing rush to increase its lead to 2-0 at 6:58 of the first period but lasted five shifts for 2:47 in ice time before being unable to continue.
The Lightning went on to a 5-2 victory to take a 2-1 series lead and closed out the Stars in six games to win their second championship, with Stamkos returning to being an off-ice leader for the last three games.
“He was great for us in a leadership role,” center Brayden Point said. “Not playing, you kind of have a different perspective of the game and he was able to give us some different looks that he saw from watching.”
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But Stamkos prefers playing to watching, so he’s understandably enjoying Tampa Bay’s run to the Cup Final and its bid to repeat. Stamkos has played in all 18 postseason games and is tied with linemate Alex Killorn for third in playoff scoring with 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists), including two game-winning goals.
“Obviously, as a player you want to be on the ice helping your teammates win,” Stamkos said. “So that’s the best feeling.”
The Lightning have seen the difference a healthy Stamkos can make. He has been an offensive force on their second line with center Anthony Cirelli and Killorn, and with his lethal one-timer from his usual spot in the left circle on their first power-play unit.
Tampa Bay is 20-for-53 (37.7 percent) on the power play in the playoffs, and Stamkos is tied for fourth among all scorers with 11 power-play points (four goals, seven assists).
And he has continued to be a steadying presence as a leader.
“He’s the captain of our team, so to have him not only on the ice but in the locker room around the guys throughout the whole process has been really helpful,” Killorn said. “Not to mention, on the ice he’s been great. He gives our power play, obviously, a different look on it and the PK has to adjust and plays differently when he’s on it just because of how dangerous he is with his one-timer. And 5-on-5 he’s been spectacular, great in the face-off circle.
“There’s a lot of things he does, but in the room he’s a huge aspect of our team.”
This will be the 31-year-old’s third Stanley Cup Final. He was 25 during the first one in 2015, when the Lightning lost to Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
Stamkos had one assist in that series and battled through injuries the next five seasons, trying to get another chance to play for a title. He still cherishes his Game 3 moment and winning the Cup last season, but remains hungry for more.
“I got to experience some great runs before in the past and, for a few of us that were kind of around for a long time, this is going to be out third Final together,” he said. “So it’s pretty amazing. You look back at all those years and how far we’ve come and, obviously, being part of that last year.”
Tampa Bay appreciated Stamkos’ contribution last season but is glad he’s been able to play a bigger part this postseason.
“He played just the one game (last postseason), but he scored a huge goal for us,” forward Ondrej Palat said. “I’m sure he wanted to play more, but he’s enjoying this run so much. You can see it how much fun he has, and we just want to win again.”