Steven Stamkos didn't have to worry about a sophomore slump. In 2009-10, the Tampa Bay Lightning center's second NHL season was a breakout: 51 goals, 95 points and a Rocket Richard trophy for his mantle.
His 2010-2011 season wasn't significantly less productive (45 goals, 46 assists), but Stamkos scored just five goals in the season's last 28 games -- a rare lapse in his prolific play. At the pace he was on through the first 54 games of the season, he may have reached 60 goals.
"Sometimes things are good, sometimes they are bad," Stamkos told the St. Petersburg Times during his slump in March 2011. "It just happens that way. The way you fight that adversity is the way you become better as a player. The best players ever to play have gone through streaks like this. It's not something you have to panic about. You just have to stick with the plan."
Stamkos has clearly learned from that frustrating experience in the latter half of last season and has started the 2011-12 campaign stronger than ever. Through 20 games he has 20 points -- 11 goals and 9 assists.
He also is becoming more clutch, scoring eight of his 11 goals while the Lightning are trailing. He already has a hat trick under his belt, scoring all three goals in the second period against the Chicago Blackhawks in a 5-4 overtime win on Nov. 4.
Clearly, Stamkos is evolving his game to make sure he stays on the scoresheet.
"It's just the evolution of finding different ways to score," Stamkos told the Times. "Physically, I just feel stronger. I feel like I'm winning a lot more battles and sustaining pressure by utilizing my speed and strength."
Stamkos used to only rely on his skilled hands, speed and a cannon of a shot from the point on the power play (he led the league in power play goals in 2009-10 with 24). Now he finds goals all over the ice as he continues to develop and expand his skill set.
"You have to go to different areas, go to the net. Screens, tips, deflections, rebounds -- it's just about evolving your game," Stamkos told reporters.
Stamkos' evolution is exactly what Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher likes to see in a young player.
"I'm so proud of him right now," Boucher told the Times. "He's not dangling. He's using his speed to charge through opponents. He's using his scrambling skills around the net."
Stamkos is also maturing and making the players around him better.
"He has become a special leader to this team. He's carrying his line and pulling his teammates to make them all around better players," Boucher told reporters.
"Even when he doesn't score, he's trying to do so much for the team," defenseman Pavel Kubina added.
Frequent linemate and veteran Martin St. Louis is similarly impressed by what Boucher and Kubina have seen in Stamkos this season.
"He's not just about himself. He's playing within the team," St. Louis told the Times.
His "slump" behind him, Stamkos is using the adversity he faced last season to move forward, achieving redemption at a breakneck pace. And he has no intention of slowing down.
"(Stamkos has) a consistency in his game that is something special," Boucher said. "I don't see a ceiling for this guy."
Southeast Division Notes
The Panthers moved into sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division after a 3-2 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday. They followed that up by coming back from a 3-0 deficit in a 4-3 win over the Devils Monday. That win was followed up by Wednesday's 2-1 win over the Rangers. . . . Kris Versteeg continues to benefit from the move to Florida. He's third in the league in goals (12) and points (26) and is sixth in the league in power-play points (4). He scored twice against the Devils and had the game-winner against the Rangers. "I think he's living up to his potential," coach Kevin Dineen told the Sun Sentinel. "I think players mature at different levels. I think all you can ask out of a player is when opportunity presents itself is how you respond." . . . Following a worrisome four-game losing streak which included a 7-1 loss to Toronto, the Washington Capitals again looked to AHL affiliate Hershey for inspiration, particularly with a few players banged up on the blue line. D Dmitry Orlov made his NHL debut on Monday in a 4-3 win over the Phoenix Coyotes. Orlov, currently playing his first full season in Hershey, still has a very rusty grasp on the English language, but coach Bruce Boudreau was impressed with the Russian youngster. "I was very happy with him," Boudreau told reporters. "He didn't try to do too much in his first game. He played it smart and took a lot in the last 24 hours, all in English and did pretty well at it." Against Winnipeg on Wednesday, Orlov got his first NHL point, an assist on Nicklas Backstrom's second-period goal. . . . The win over Phoenix marked Boudreau's 200th career win behind the Washington bench. Boudreau bested Don Cherry's "fastest to reach 200 wins" record, getting his 200th win in 326 games. Cherry took 341 games to reach 200 wins. . . . Alexander Semin was a healthy scratch for the first time this season in the game against Phoenix, but was back in the lineup against Winnipeg on Wednesday, scoring a goal in the first period of a 4-3 overtime win for the Capitals. . . . D Ron Hainsey returned to the Winnipeg lineup Wednesday after missing 16 games due to a head injury from a hit sustained Oct. 17 against Pittsburgh. Hainsey barely skipped a beat, skating for 23:24 of ice time. Coach Claude Noel noted that Hainsey was tired after the game, but was still happy with his effort. "I thought he did the best he could, played hard and it would have been a hard game to play, a pretty heavy game," Noel told reporters. . . . After being shut out by the Montreal Canadiens last week, including a second period that coach Paul Maurice called "the worst hockey I've ever seen a team play," the Carolina Hurricanes regrouped and won two of their next three games, culminating in a 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers Monday. Maurice is moved by the progress made after the disappointing loss to the Canadiens. "To come back and be able to flick a switch and as a group, get 20 guys focused on an idea, that's really good leadership in that room," Maurice said in Monday's post-game comments. "We've changed some things and we've tried to change our fortunes and our season with a pretty deep heart-to-heart conversation after our Montreal game. We think the rock bottom was Montreal and wins like this gets us going. This could change things." . . . The Hurricanes followed up the win over the Flyers by squandering a 2-0 first-period lead in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Canadiens.