Steven Stamkos (left) and Pavel Datsyuk (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
Steven Stamkos has gone head-to-head with Pavel Datsyuk for three games and the veteran has clearly come out ahead of the game so far. That is going to have to change if the Lightning has any hope of avoiding a first-round playoff upset.
We’ve all seen this before, so suffice to say Steven Stamkos would not be the first star to be collared and rendered ineffective by Pavel Datsyuk. And even though the injury-prone Datsyuk is 36 and clearly entering the twilight of his career, Stamkos probably won’t be the last.
Datsyuk has gone mano-a-mano, superstar against superstar with Stamkos in this series and has pretty much rendered Stamkos ineffective, going into Game 4 of the Detroit Red Wings series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Stamkos has 11 shots and just two assists in the series so far, with eight of those shots coming in the Lightning’s Game 1 loss to the Red Wings.
So, it’s clearly time for Stamkos to step up his game and get some tangible results. It’s time for Stamkos to find a way, any way, to get out of the clutches of one of the best two-way players in the history of the game. The fact that Datsyuk is not only neutralizing, but outscoring Stamkos is making the matchup even more lopsided.
All is not lost for Stamkos and the Lightning, though. But it’s clearly come to a point where Stamkos, even though he’s not cashing a paycheck during the playoffs, has to prove his worth as the highest-paid player on the team. It’s time for him to channel his inner Rocket Richard Trophy winner and truly be a difference maker for his team and in this series. Without that, the heavily favored Lightning will be out of the playoffs a lot quicker than they ever thought.
Is it fair to expect so much of Stamkos? Yes, absolutely it is. Even he would acknowledge that. He’s the offensive centerpiece of the most dynamic and highest scoring team in the NHL. Part of the reason for that is the Lightning possesses an enormous amount of scoring depth, but Stamkos is the one who leads the way. And it is up to him to lead the Lightning out of the hole in which they find themselves.
It will not be easy. With Game 4 in Detroit, the Red Wings will have last change and the luxury of having the advantage when it comes to the matchups. The Lightning’s attempts to avoid that matchup with Datsyuk resulted in Stamkos playing under 17 minutes in Game 3, with the vast majority of those reduced minutes spent going nose-to-nose with Datsyuk.
One thing we’ll probably see in Game 5 is Lightning coach Jon Cooper and Stamkos not worrying so much about the matchup. If I’m Cooper, I keep throwing Stamkos over the boards as much as I can and challenge him to get the better of Datsyuk. Challenge him to use the almost 12 years he has on Datsyuk and his youthful energy to wear Datsyuk down. Go right into the belly of the beast and keep going until you grind the beast down.
That’s what the Chicago Blackhawks did in the Stanley Cup final in 2013. Through the first three games of the series, the Bruins were leading 2-1 in games and Zdeno Chara was taking over the series on two fronts. First, he was dominating with his size and strength. Secondly, the Blackhawks were so preoccupied with avoiding him that their game fell off the rails. But starting in Game 4, the Blackhawks began to go right at Chara, dumping the puck in his corner and challenging him 1-on-1. And an interesting thing happened, their speed and skill began to win over Chara’s strength and reach and the Blackhawks did not lose another game en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
That’s something like what Steven Stamkos has to do right now. If he does and fails, well, the Lightning can tip its hat to Datsyuk and try again next year. If Stamkos can somehow overcome and wear down Datsyuk, the Lightning will win the series. Because it’s great when your secondary scorers are coming up big, but it only makes you a winner if your best players are at least keeping pace with them.
This is Steven Stamkos’ time. It will be fascinating to see what he does with it.