Steve Stamkos smiled as he saw the media horde heading to his stall at the MTS Centre.
The Tampa Bay Lightning forward knew what was coming.
“So Steve, are you going to get 60 tonight?” he joked as reporters crowded around him. “Well, I’m going to try.”
Stamkos and the Lightning play the Winnipeg Jets in the final game of the season for both teams Saturday night. The game doesn’t mean anything as far as the standings go since both clubs are out of the playoffs. But it will be Stamkos’s last chance to get 60 goals, something that hasn’t been done since Alexander Ovechkin scored 65 during the 2007-08 season. Before Ovechkin the last players to get 60 were Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, who both did it for Pittsburgh during the 1995-96 season.
When reporters did finally get a chance to ask Stamkos Saturday morning after the Lightning’s pre-game skate, he said it has been hard not to think about it.
“We get asked about it especially on this Canadian road trip the last three games,” he said, referring to Tampa’s previous stops in Toronto and Montreal this week. “It’s tough not to think about it. When you are close to something you want to accomplish it. No matter what happens tonight it has still been a fun year.”
Stamkos did score in the Lightning’s 3-2 overtime loss against the Maple Leafs this week, but he said he had been pressing too much lately to reach the milestone.
“You don’t want to press for it,” he said. “If it’s going to happen it’s going to happen. I was maybe guilty a little bit in Toronto of trying to force some shots that normally I don’t take.”
Stamkos has played in every Lightning game this season, which is remarkable since he is the focus of so much attention by other teams and gets many of his goals by driving hard to the net. He credited his fitness and health to a rigorous summer program with former NHL player Gary Roberts.
“When I started working out with him two summers ago he told me it was going to be a process and that [I was]still maturing,” said Stamkos who is 22 years old.
“You have to take care of your body. That’s something that Gary has taught me, no matter if you are 18 or you are 41.”
Lightning coach Guy Boucher said he worried about players pushing too hard for Stamkos. That’s what happened in Montreal and Tampa ended up losing 5-2.
“Players [were]all trying to feed him and we didn’t look very good at all,” Boucher said. “Nobody was shooting and we corrected that the next game [in Toronto]and Stamkos got a goal. When you are trying to feed somebody that’s covered all the time it certainly doesn’t help your team.”
Boucher added that most of Stamkos’s goals this season have come from rebounds and tips. “You don’t want to change your game just because he’s going to get 60. Because to me if gets 59, I don’t think he’s a worse player.”
As for the Jets, coach Claude Noel said he just wants his players to come out hard for the fans. “I just want us to play well and play hard for the fans and play for the right reasons for each other,” he said. The Jets have not met many of the team’s goals this season and the team has 83 points so far, just three more than the franchise earned last season in Atlanta.
“At the end of the day it’s disappointment,” Noel said when asked to assess the season. “Because we had a target and the target was 96 points and the target was the playoffs and we didn’t make it. And so it lies right there, it’s black and white for me. I will not be happy until we make the playoffs and that’s the way it’s going to be.”