It has been a spectacular season for Steven Stamkos, even if the Tampa Bay Lightning won't be in the NHL playoffs.
Despite his team's struggles and goal-scoring on a whole being down around the NHL, the 22-year-old Stamkos is on the verge of becoming only the second player in the new millennium to score 60 goals in a season.
He had 58 with only three games left in the regular season, 10 more than his closest competitor, Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Stamkos could reach the magic number Wednesday in Montreal, Thursday in his hometown of Toronto or in the Lightning's season finale Saturday in Winnipeg.
”He's definitely our MVP and I hope he wins one of those trophies,” said Stamkos's linemate Martin St. Louis, who was league MVP in 2004. ”He deserves it.
”When you're a team on the outside looking in it's tough to win those awards, but to me it's an MVP season. It's not just the goals, but the timely goals. The big goals.”
Stamkos has all but locked up his second Rocket Richard Trophy as the league goal-scoring leader. He shared one with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby in 2009-10, when each had 51.
He can become the first player to hit 60 since Alexander Ovechkin scored 65 goals for Washington in 2007-08.
Also, the Markham, Ont. native has already passed his career high of 95 points and can become the second player this season to reach 100 after Malkin, who has been equally brilliant and is Stamkos's main competition take the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.
From midway through his rookie season in 2008-09, when he had 23 goals, the six-foot-one Stamkos has been a scoring machine.
”You need to be put in the right situation,” he said. ”Playing with a guy like Marty, he's a great playmaker, and Teddy Purcell's having a career year.
”He's a great passer. You have to play with pretty good players and find areas on the ice where teams for whatever reason can't seem to find you.”
Stamkos slipped to 45 goals last season when his scoring suddenly stalled late in the campaign. But with some adjustments to the defences teams were throwing his way, he is back stronger than ever.
Two seasons ago, nearly half his goals — 24 — came on the power play. Last season, it was 17. This season, only 12 came with the man advantage, so he has more than 40 even-strength goals.
”I scored on a lot of one-timers a couple of years ago,' he said. ”This year, not too much.
”It's about going to the net, paying the price to score goals. It's a tough league to score in, but you have to go to the areas where you get rewarded and that's what I've been able to do this year.”
St. Louis noticed the change.
”When he first broke into the league, everyone was so afraid of his one-timer from the right side,” he said. ”When you have a lot of success scoring one way, they eventually take that away, guard against it.
”It's about trying to reinvent yourself all the time and find different ways to score goals. He's done that. He scored a lot from the paint — tip-ins, rebounds.”
Stamkos leads the league in game-wining goals with 12 and is third in shooting percentage. Heading into Wednesday's game, he had scored on 20.2 per cent of his 287 shots.
He's done that in an era where goals are increasingly hard to come by. Goal-scoring has been in steady decline since teams averaged 3.08 goals per game in the post-lockout season of 2005-06. This season, it is 2.73 per game.
Asked to compare him to great scorers of the past. St. Louis mentioned Brett Hull, who had 86 goals in 1990-91, because of his quick release and ability to get off a good shot in tight traffic.
Coach Guy Boucher said Stamkos is his own kind of goal-scorer, and said he would have been so in any era.
”One thing is sure, he's among the top goal scorers in history because there are not a lot of guys now you can compare him to,” said Boucher. ”He's got 10 goals more than the next guy.
”People don't realize how hard it is to score goals nowadays. Teams are so focused on the defensive aspect of the game now. It's very difficult for players to get through the defencemen and the backchecks and get into position to score.”
It was a rebuilding year for the Lightning, who traded off some players, mostly for draft picks. They have two first- and four second-round selections in this year's draft.
Stamkos's feats are already a bright spot in a dark season, but reaching 60 would make it truly special.
”We're talking 60, but he hasn't done it yet and I don't want to jinx him,” said St. Louis. ”He's close to 60. That's enough of an accomplishment.
“It's not going to define his career if he gets 60 or not.”