After slow start, Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos has emerged as one of the NHL's best young players

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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 2010

TAMPA -- While fans will be focused on Alex Ovechkin's return from a two-game suspension, the players and coaches on the Washington Capitals' bench will have their eyes on another star forward: Steven Stamkos.

Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning's sublime sophomore, is having an Ovechkin-like offensive campaign, and Coach Bruce Boudreau knows the Capitals' success -- or failure -- to contain him could determine the outcome of Saturday night's game at St. Pete Times Forum.

"He's definitely the real deal," Boudreau said. "He's going to threaten Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and Nick Backstrom for scoring titles down the line."

That time could arrive sooner rather than later for Stamkos. With a rare combination of speed, playmaking savvy and a devastatingly accurate one-timer, he entered Friday's games with 42 goals, which ranked behind only Crosby's 45 and Ovechkin's 44. Meanwhile, his 82 points ranks fifth, 14 behind Ovechkin's league-leading total.

"I'm not thinking about awards," Stamkos said. "I'm thinking that we need to win some games here. We've been struggling, but we're still in it. We're six points out [of the playoffs] with 12 games left. So it's a possibility. I want to be a player who helps this team make it."

That Stamkos, 20, is challenging the likes of Ovechkin and Crosby shouldn't come as a surprise, though, because after a sluggish start as a rookie he has been among hockey's most prolific scorers. Since Feb. 17, 2009 -- the date of his first hat trick -- the league's top scorers are Ovechkin (59 goals), Stamkos (58) and Crosby (57).

"Stamkos's shot," Boudreau said, "is tremendous."

After being drafted first overall in 2008, Stamkos made the leap from junior hockey in Ontario to the NHL. But he struggled to earn playing time under then-coach Barry Melrose, who felt the center's body and defensive game weren't ready for the big leagues. A month into that season, a headline in the St. Petersburg Times asked, "Where's Stamkos?" a play on the "Seen Stamkos?" marketing slogan.

"I started off with a coach that didn't think I should have been there," he said. "It was a tough situation."

After Tampa Bay fired Melrose only 16 games into his first season, the team took a different approach with Stamkos, whom many within the organization considered to be key to stabilizing a franchise struggling on the ice and in turmoil off it. Rick Tocchet replaced Melrose and put Stamkos on a strength-training program. He scratched Stamkos on three occasions, each time asking him to watch from the press box with a notebook and pen in hand. Stamkos also attended regular video sessions with an assistant coach.

"That's when it hit home," Stamkos said. "I started to doubt myself a little bit, and my self-confidence wasn't there. I knew that if I wanted to keep playing, I had to play so well that the coaches couldn't take me out of the lineup."

Added Lightning General Manager Brian Lawton: "It was like five or six things coming together. We could sit here and say that we did this, that or the other. But at the end of the day, Steven made it happen. It was just a matter of time."


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