Occasionally super slo-mo is required to gain a full appreciation of genius.
The deft hands of Tampa Bay Lightning centre Steven Stamkos are hard to follow in real time, so go back, look at the tape, and prepare to marvel.
It’s the second period of the playoff opener between the Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens, just after the 13 minute mark, Stamkos gathers a pass near his own net and starts taking hard strides up the right side.
He blows past Habs winger Brandon Prust, then fires a shot as Alexei Emelin tries to close him down.
As Howie Meeker might say, stop it right there.
Close examination reveals the puck is bobbling and stands on end, flat against his blade, when the wrist-shot motion begins.
As Montreal goalie Carey Price perceptibly shifts his weight to his left, presumably anticipating that Stamkos will keep skating toward the goal line, the 24-year-old gives the merest of flicks with his wrist to settle the puck – remember, he has already started shooting – and fires a rocket blocker side.
Better positioning from Price certainly sees him parry it, but let’s also give a little credit to a world-class player, shall we?
There’s a reason why Stamkos has scored 233 goals since 2008 (only Alex Ovechkin, who has played 24 more games, has more).
When linemate Tyler Johnson was asked whether he ever catches himself admiring Stamkos on the ice, he said: “Just about every shift, yeah.”
Rookie Lightning forward J.T. Brown said in his estimation Stamkos’ singular talent is pulling off delicate skill plays at top-line racing speed.
Stamkos’s second-period goal was just one entry in the canon.
“It’s great because he’s moving. He’s not standing still, getting the puck. When you’re moving you have so many other things to think about – he has to have his eyes up, he’s got to pick a spot, he has too many things at once. It’s hands, wrist, his stick. He’s going 100 miles an hour,” said Brown. “It’s subtle, just a subtle little movement, if he doesn’t settle it, it might not go where he wants it. And he’s got a guy on him. If you gave me 20 seconds to do it, I could probably do it too. But to do it all in one motion, all in one stride, it’s pretty special.”
Prior to the series curtain-raiser, Stamkos talked about his injury-blighted season and the added pressure of leading the team into the playoffs as captain.
“I know I have to be a leader and lead by example out there on the ice at both ends of the rink. Especially coming back from the injury this year, I was just trying to simplify the game and I think we’ve been able to do that as a team,” he said.
The Toronto-area native still sports a reminder of the broken leg he suffered in Boston on Nov. 11, which cost him the chance to play at the Olympics.
It’s fashioned out of athletic tape – lots of it – and starts mid-shin on his right leg and heads toe-ward.
Tampa coach Jon Cooper said this week that his captain has only really started looking like himself over the past five or six games. That Price, one of the best goalies in the world, was undone by a small positional error reveals just how closely Stamkos has to be watched; there’s little margin for error.
Habs defenceman P.K. Subban said Montreal will have to play tighter to his childhood friend.
“He doesn’t like it when you’re in his face, he doesn’t like it when you know where he is, and when you’re aware. Good players like him, they find ways to be invisible on the ice and then they appear when they have to appear,” Subban said, later adding, “You’re looking over your shoulder, the next thing you know the puck’s between your legs and he’s tapping it in back-door.”
Subban and Stamkos were World Junior teammates, but their acquaintance goes back to when they were eight years old.
“We played for the North York Canadiens, actually – the same crest that I wear today, he wore at one point, so maybe you want to let him know about it … we won a city championship together, I think we lost two or three games all year,” he said.
While the Habs don’t have anyone of Stamkos’ stature down the middle, they do have a healthy dose of skill on their third and fourth line.
And if they are to counter the threat posed by one of the game’s most gifted sniper, it will happen the way it did Wednesday, when third-line centre Lars Eller scored and set up another goal, and nominal fourth-line pivot Daniel Brière orchestrated Dale Weise’s overtime winner.
Eller, in particular, stands to be an important figure.
The injury Eller suffered in the first period of the playoffs a year ago robbed the Habs of much-needed offensive balance, and despite long stretches of ineffectiveness this season, coach Michel Therrien said “he has an important role.”
As the Habs look to exploit Tampa’s bottom-six forwards and depth defencemen, the fact that Eller got off to a flyer is an encouraging sign.
“I always had it in me,” the Dane said. “I just got it back.”