Opponent's Mission: Stop Stamkos

TORONTO, CANADA - NOVEMBER 30: Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates during game action against the Toronto Maple Leafs November 30, 2010 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Just before Thanksgiving, there was much conversation about Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos’ chances of scoring 50 goals in 50 games.

The 20-year-old sniper had picked up 10 goals in the previous nine Lightning contests to give him 20 in 21 games.  He led the league in both goals scored and points (37), and had recorded 15 points in the same nine game stretch.

NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky attends the Gillette - EA SPORTS Champions of Gaming Global Finals at ARENA Event Space on April 14, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun even asked the greatest goal scorer of all-time, Wayne Gretzky, about Stamkos’ chances, and if all of the media hype would put any additional pressure on the young star.

Gretzky’s answer proved fitting, if not prophetic:

That’s a fun part of the game.  It’s a lot better talking about that than going five games without a goal and people saying, ‘When are you going to score your next goal?’  It’s a lot more fun when they’re asking you if you can get 50 in 50.”

Gretzky knows of which he speaks, as he holds the record for the fastest season to 50 goals.  During the 1981-82 campaign, “The Great One” notched 50 in the Edmonton Oilers first 39 games.

The 50-in-50 remains one of the hardest and least-accomplished feats in NHL history.  Maurice “The Rocket” Richard was the first, with Mike Bossy, Gretzky (three times), Mario Lemieux, and Brett Hull (twice) as the only club members.

As a matter of fact Hull is the last to turn the trick, back in the 1991-92 campaign.

With coaches deploying stifling defensive systems and with NHL goal scoring down, that is a record that will probably never be touched.

Stamkos would score a goal and three points against Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers in his next game after the Gretzky interview, and it appeared that there was no stopping number 91.

TORONTO, CANADA - NOVEMBER 30: Luke Schenn of the Toronto Maple Leafs defends against Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning during game action November 30, 2010 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

But it’s clear that opponents have shifted their concentration to keying on Stamkos as part of their overall defensive stategies when playing against Tampa Bay.

This was evident Saturday night in a game against the Colorado Avalanche.

Every time the puck would get anywhere near Stamkos, Adam Foote and the rest of the Av’s defense converged on the Bolts’ trigger man.

John-Michael Liles even robbed Stamkos of a power play goal.  As a flat cross-ice pass came to “Stammer’s” office at the left faceoff circle, Liles moved himself into the shooting lane.  With goaltender Peter Budaj at the far side of the cage, Stamkos’ one-time shot that was headed into the empty net was blocked by Liles’ elbow as he sacrificed his body.

Make sure to keep an eye on the opposition’s defense once the puck is headed to Stamkos’ wheelhouse.  It’s as if they are programmed to get between him and their net before the puck even reaches him, even moreso than with any other shooters in the NHL.

Stamkos has now gone without a goal in his last five contests, and has been held without a point in three of those five.  But Tampa Bay has still managed a 2-2-1 record in the five games.

Stamkos still has excellent numbers with 21 goals and 40 points in 27 games.  But with the five game scoring slump, in which he has registered just two assists, he has lost both the NHL goal scoring and points leads.

PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 27: Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second period goal against the Calgary Flames at Consol Energy Center on November 27, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Another young superstar, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has taken over the top spot in both categories.

Crosby is currently riding a blistering 15-game scoring streak in which he has netted an incredible 17 goals and 31 points, raising his season totals to 23 goals and 46 points.

Stamkos and Crosby tied for the Rocket Richard Trophy last season with 51 goals, both finishing a goal ahead of Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.

In the five game scoring slump, Stamkos still was able to record 13 shots on goal.  He should continue to get great scoring chances, as his linemates Martin St. Louis and Simon Gagne, are extremely creative offensively.

Stopping Stamkos Not Totally Quieting Bolts’ Offense

Even without goals from Stamkos, Tampa Bay has still managed to put up 13 goals in the last four games.  While St. Louis is the only other goal scorer to reach double-digits (11) this year, there is a balanced distribution of contributions from the Bolts’ skaters.

Ryan Malone has scored seven times, and four others have struck for five (Teddy Purcell, Sean Bergenheim, defenseman Brett Clark, and Dominic Moore).

The foot soldiers’ offerings make it tough to cover one or two players or lines to shut down an entire offense.

St. Louis is tied with Crosby for second overall in assists with 23, and his 34 points has him tied with Ovechkin for third in the NHL.

Gagne moved to the top line after missing 18 games due to injury, and has picked up his first two goals and five points in his first three contests since his return.  This type of continued output from Gagne would have the significant affect on Tampa Bay that was anticipated when GM Steve Yzerman acquired him over the summer.

SUNRISE, FL - OCTOBER 1: Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning during a break in action against the Florida Panthers during a pre season game on October 1, 2010 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. The Lightning defeated the Panthers 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

The club should be getting an additional boost with captain Vincent Lecavalier set to return sometime within the next two weeks.

He had surgery to repair a broken right hand on November 12th, and was slated to miss about a month to six weeks.

All reports are that he is rehabbing the hand and on schedule for his return.

This bodes well for the Lightning as they continue their quest to stay alive in the hunt for a playoff berth, as the season is now over one-third complete.

And it’s not a matter of “if” Stamkos will regain his scoring touch, but a question of “when” his dominant moments once again resurface.

But until that time, and barring any further injuries to key contributors, the offense appears that it will be just fine.

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Tags: Alexander Ovechkin Bolts Brett Hull Henrik Lundqvist Mario Lemieux Martin St Louis Maurice "The Rocket" Richard Mike Bossy National Hockey League NHL Sidney Crosby Simon Gagne Steve Yzerman Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay Lightning Vincent Lecavalier Wayne Gretzky

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