It took roughly 90 seconds for Steven Stamkos to realize what playoff hockey was like.
Playing in his first postseason game in the opening round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs against Pittsburgh, Stamkos went into the corner to play the puck. He played the puck just fine, but had to pick himself off the ice after Brooks Orpik plastered him against the boards.
After the game, a 3-0 shutout for the Penguins, Stamkos brushed off the hit, saying, “It was a hit -- no big deal. You get hit 200 times a season a season. He’s a physical player. I saw it coming.”*
What he probably didn’t see coming was how long it would take him to score his first career playoff goal. In his third season in the NHL he added another 45 goals to his career total, but struggled down the stretch as the Lightning fought for a playoff spot. In his his last 24 regular season games, he found the back of the net only four times.
After getting shut out in game one, Coach Boucher moved Stamkos to a line with Sean Bergenheim and Nate Thompson in order to get his top scorer to remember that he shouldn’t “bypass the process”. Even though the Lightning won, Stamkos was again held off the score sheet.
Stamkos admitted he wasn’t ready for playoff hockey “Everyone is trying to take your head off, and you still have to be able to be patient and take that hit and still make the play. It was definitely more than I expected, playing that first game.”^
Games three and four were back in Tampa. Pittsburgh won them both, but still no goals from Stamkos. He did finally record his first point by assisting on a Marty St. Louis power-play goal in game three, but followed it up with a game four where he recorded zero shots.
With the Lightning down three games to one and on the road, things in Pittsburgh did not look good. A series loss against a Penguins team that was missing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would not have been a great way to end the season. Stamkos himself would have to answer questions about if he could handle the pressure of the playoffs.
Despite getting outshot in the first period the Lightning managed to grab the lead when Simon Gagne beat Marc-Andre Fleury. Forty-six seconds later, Stamkos found himself in a position to build on the lead. And he cashed in.
It wasn’t a blistering one-timer on the power play, or a quick wrister on a breakaway. Nope. It was a dirty rebound goal.
Steve Downie found himself open at the blue line with the Penguins changing lines, and he fired the puck on Fleury. Stamkos out-muscled Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek to get position in front of the net. When Fleury tried to poke the rebound past Stamkos it hit the 21-year-old and dropped to his stick. He cranked a backhander up over the sprawled goaltender for his first NHL playoff goal.
As you saw from the video, Stamkos had so much fun scoring the first that he scored another. This time he found a small seam in the defense and put himself in the right spot to fire home the juicy rebound.
All of the hard work he put in finally paid off: “I wanted to be part of this team’s success in the playoffs and prove to myself and my teammates that I can play in these pressure situations.”**
From there, the rout was on. The Lightning scored eight times in the game to not only win, but to also change the momentum of the season. Stamkos called it the “biggest game of his career.” Granted it was a rather young career at that point, but you can’t blame him for being excited. The Lightning would win game six, 4-2, to even the series, and then Dwayne Roloson would steal the series with a 1-0, 36-save victory in game seven.
Stamkos would pick up two more goals in the series against Washington that the Lightning won four games to one. In the Eastern Conference Finals he would again score twice (and suffered one broken nose) as the Lightning came up just a goal short in a thrilling seven-game series.
* Yohe, Josh. "Lightning's Stamkos has Rocky Debut." McClatchy - Tribune Business NewsApr 14 2011. ProQuest. Web. 9 Jan. 2017 .
^ Fennelly, Martin. "Stamkos' Education Continues." McClatchy - Tribune Business NewsApr 18 2011. ProQuest. Web. 9 Jan. 2017 .
**Anderson, Shelly. "91 IS HOT ENOUGH AT LAST, THE LIGHTNING'S SCORING STAR, STEVEN STAMKOS, REGAINS HIS TOUCH." Pittsburgh Post - GazetteApr 24 2011. ProQuest. Web. 9 Jan. 2017 .