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Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere makes a save on a shot by Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)
Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere makes a save on a shot by Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)

The kids star as Leafs beat Lightning Add to ...

Gary Roberts was trying to keep a low profile, but it wasn't working.

The former NHLer had popped into the Air Canada Centre Thursday afternoon to say hello to a few former teammates with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a club he's kept in close contact with since retiring last season.

Everywhere he went, however, Roberts, who spent 2000-04 with the Toronto Maple Leafs, was asked about Lightning star Steven Stamkos and the grizzled veteran's hand in helping him become one of the NHL's youngest, brightest stars.

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Roberts declined a few interviews, saying he wasn't there to promote the workout regimen Stamkos now credits with his transformation, but as it turned out, he didn't have to.

A few hours later, the proof was on the ice.

It ultimately came in a losing cause, but it was Stamkos who snapped home the game's first goal and later added an assist, showcasing his impressive new-found physique and earning the game's second star.

The problem was - as has been the case on too many nights this season with Tampa - Stamkos's teammates let him down. And the Leafs own young sniper, Phil Kessel, capped a wild overtime with his 23rd goal of the season to give Toronto a 4-3 win.

Despite Stamkos extending his franchise-record scoring streak to 18 games (17 goals, 16 assists), the Lightning proved unable to match Toronto's intensity. Perhaps sensing his team was on the ropes after it was outshot 29-19 after the first period, Tampa head coach Rick Tocchet gambled in overtime by putting only one defenceman on the ice.

After several saves by Leafs netminder Jean-Sébastien Giguère, the Lightning gave up a 2-on-1 with an exhausted Vincent Lecavalier the only man back. Tyler Bozak, another of the young goal scorers last night, found Kessel all alone, and he made no mistake in beating netminder Mike Smith.

"There's always mistakes in games that no one notices, but any time there's a mistake, it's in our net," a weary Tocchet said afterward. "That's the tough thing to swallow. That's demoralizing."

It was the seventh loss in the past eight games for the Lightning, all of which have come while Stamkos - the game's hottest young star - has made an incredible push into the Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy race to sit just two back of Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals) with 42 goals on the year.

Only 16 months removed from his ACC debut last season in his eighth NHL game, this new, improved Stamkos is nearly 20 pounds heavier and looked multiple times more lethal than that early, tentative game in his rookie season.

"He's a great player. Obviously, he's got a great shot, great release," Giguère said. "Every time he has the puck, he's pretty dangerous and always looking to snipe it."

Roberts takes a bit of an aw-shucks approach to praise for his work with Stamkos - "He didn't get my hands, that's the good thing," said a man who scored 438 goals in 1,224 NHL games - pointing to the youngster's innate talent as being more responsible for his success than any workout routine.

Stamkos's goal was a nice illustration of what's become one of the league's most-feared shots, as he wired the puck from the faceoff dot over Giguère's shoulder, short side, in the first period.

The Leafs struck back with a vengeance in the second and third, getting two ugly goals from Viktor Stalberg and another from Bozak to setup the entertaining finish.

Aside from Lightning defenceman Kurtis Foster's tally to make it 2-2, every goal in the game came from a player under 25 - part of what Giguère says is a continuation of a trend in the league.

"It's a young man's game now," the 32-year-old goalie said. "Seems like the young guys, they're coming in and they're NHL ready. Young kids now at 15, 16, they start working out, they start getting their body ready and stuff like that, so when they reach 20, they're at the weight they should be.

"When I started, or even before that, guys didn't used to workout when they were young, so they needed a few years in the minors to get ready and beef up a little bit."

Roberts said Stamkos was in fine shape entering the NHL as an 18-year-old last season, but he needed a little of that beef to compete with the game's elite players.

Well-known as a fitness fanatic during his career, Roberts guided Stamkos during sessions at his home in Uxbridge, Ont., over the summer - sessions Roberts hopes to offer more teenage soon-to-be-NHLers this year, in a larger gym in Toronto.

"I'm going to try and line some guys up," Roberts said. "I'm just not going to take on anybody, I'm going to interview them myself and make sure they're guys who are willing to do the work."

Given the results, here's betting his phone rings off the hook.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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