TAMPA, Fla. - Sometimes Steven Stamkos does things that his Tampa Bay Lightning teammates can't help but marvel at.
"Just about every shift," linemate Tyler Johnson said.
That was clear in Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens when Stamkos went end-to-end before settling the rolling puck on his stick and firing a perfect shot far side past Carey Price.
And even though the Lightning lost the game, that highlight and his two-goal night showed why Stamkos is the X-factor that can tip the balance of the series, no matter how well or how poorly the Habs play.
"That's what we expect out of him," winger Alex Killorn said Thursday. "As long as he continues that, I think he gives us a good chance of winning."
Even with starting goaltender Ben Bishop and rookie-of-the-year candidate Ondrej Palat out with upper-body injuries, and even with more than a dozen players making their Stanley Cup playoff debut, the Lightning know they can count on Stamkos. And that's after the 24-year-old Markham, Ont., native missed four months with a broken leg.
Stamkos returned March 6 and had five goals in his first seven games. But Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said that the stats were deceiving.
"Those first 10-15 games, he wasn't himself," Cooper said Wednesday. "He was just slowly getting himself back. I would say these last five, six games that he's played, he's been an impact player for us."
The only other player in the series who has the potential to make as much of an impact is Habs defenceman P.K. Subban, who has known Stamkos since the two played together for the North York Canadiens as eight-year-olds. Subban and Stamkos won a city championship together, then gold in 2008 with Canada's world junior team.
Since, their families have remained close friends while they've built up some healthy animosity as competitors.
"I love playing against him," Subban said. "I like making him frustrated, and I'm sure he'll like to score on me. But the history that we have of playing each other, it's been back and forth. When I'm on the ice, I'm sure he knows I'm out there, and I know he's out there."
Subban liked getting Stamkos involved in pushing and shoving after the whistle in Game 1 because it meant he was starting to get to him.
Beyond that, the Habs defenceman expressed nothing but respect and admiration for his childhood teammate.
"That guy, as far as I'm concerned, he's probably the best goal-scorer in the league," Subban said. "Good players like him they find ways to be invisible on the ice, and they appear when they have to appear. And players like Stamkos, (Sidney) Crosby and (John) Tavares, they have that ability to disappear and then you're looking over your shoulder and next thing you know the puck's between your legs and he's tapping it in backdoor."
That was one of Stamkos's goals, when Killorn gave him a perfect pass on a two-on-one past a siding Andrei Markov. But it was his first of Game 1, a wicked shot that followed a breathtaking rush, that had everyone buzzing.
More impressive than banking the puck off the boards to evade Brandon Prust or even the shot itself was how Stamkos managed to settle the puck down in a split second. Teammate J.T. Brown knows he could do the same, but only if he had 20 seconds.
Subban didn't realize Stamkos found a way to get the puck down before firing the shot by Price. He simply appreciated how Stamkos finished things off with such subtle skill.
"I think sometimes as a shooter, they recognize when to release it," Subban said. "It's not about how hard it is, it's just about where you put it and how quick you get it off. He got it off pretty quick. I don't think he needed as much power behind it because he was skating so fast. He had so much momentum already."
It was the game's most memorable play on a night full of them. It shouldn't be shocking that Stamkos brought his best with the spotlight so bright, given how he beams about being back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
"It's an unbelievable experience," Stamkos said Wednesday. "It's the most fun a lot of guys have had playing hockey. The intensity is at a whole new level."
Elite players find a way to reach or exceed that level. With Bishop unlikely to play this series and Palat a game-time decision for Game 2 Friday night, Tampa Bay as a team has plenty to work on.
Turnovers are an issue and so is defensive-zone play, but Stamkos is far from a problem. Instead, he represents the Lightning's best chance to do something special at any given moment.
"I don't know what he can do more," Johnson said. "He's fun to play with, fun to watch, and I'm glad he's on our team and not playing against him."
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