The Tampa Bay Lightning arrived in Toronto for their game against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday, and their top-two centres, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos, were getting most of the attention — for different reasons.
Lecavalier has been in the spotlight for an early-season slump that has seen him score only once in 12 games. The attention on Stamkos, on the other hand, has been for his hot start — 11 goals in 12 games — a continuation of an outstanding finish to his rookie season last year.
Lecavalier has become a perimeter player and needs to get his nose dirty and use his six-foot-four, 223-pound frame to score tough goals in close, says Lightning coach Rick Tocchet.
The 29-year-old Lecavalier doesn't agree and attributes his struggles to nothing more than a temporary slump.
"It's just a tough time, right now," he said. "Sometimes, you just get in a scoring slump."
'Now, I get it'
Stamkos endured a lengthy scoring slump at the start of his rookie season. But once Tocchet took over the Lightning from the fired Barry Melrose, he decided to scratch his rookie for a game in Anaheim on Jan. 9. The benching did wonders for Stamkos.
Shortly after taking in a game from the press box, he started to play better. He has had 28 goals and 42 points in his last 41 matches —compared to just six goals and 20 points in the first 50 games of his career.
"When I decided not to dress him in Anaheim, I thought it was time to take a step backwards in order to take a couple steps forward," Tocchet said. "I talked with him there, and you could tell all of sudden he was able to breathe again. The game started to slow down for him.
"He has that innate ability to slow down the game. When he was playing, everything was happening so fast. So, we sat him out, got him on a weight program, everything got back to normal. You could just see him saying, 'Now, I get it.'"
The "Now, I get it" part has plenty to do with most junior-age NHLers. They have to figure out for themselves that what they got away with in the junior league doesn't fly in the NHL.
"In the junior game, you can get away with what you can't in the NHL," Tocchet said. "With … [Stamkos], we worked on his defensive zone coverage, and that was a key for us. When he started playing good in the defensive zone, he started playing better offensively, too."
Tocchet also felt that placing Stamkos on a line with offensive dynamo Martin St. Louis helped the teenager's cause. The two continued their productive partnership for Canada in nine games at the 2009 world championship last spring, when Stamkos scored seven goals and 11 points and St. Louis was good for four goals and 15 points.
This season, after a summer working out with retired player Gary Roberts, Stamkos continued to improve his strength and conditioning. Stamkos and Roberts live 20 minutes apart from each other north of Toronto and pushed each other at Roberts's home gym for most of the off-season.
"Well, he worked out with me for about a month, and then he went to the full-retirement plan," joked the 19-year-old Stamkos, who will have 50 family members and friends in the Air Canada Centre seats on Tuesday.
"My stats are good, obviously, but it's not what I look at every day … It's more about wins," he said.
Wins have been hard to come by for the Lightning on the road so far this season, with a 0-4-1 record away from Tampa Bay. But the Leafs have yet to win at home this season and are at 0-4-1.