BRANDON, Fla. - Steven Stamkos sat in the locker room at the Tampa Bay Lightning's suburban practice facility, talking about everything from attending a baseball game on his day off to what it might take to end a puzzling scoring slump that's extended into the playoffs.
The 21-year-old All-Star was second in the NHL with 45 goals during the regular season. But he has just five in his past 30 games and was not much of a factor while only getting off two shots in the first two games of his team's opening round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Lightning insist they aren't concerned. Despite Stamkos' struggles, the Eastern Conference matchup is tied at a game apiece heading into Game 3 tonight.
"You know you're going to go through these things. Everybody goes through them," Stamkos, who had 40 goals in his first 54 games, said of a scoring funk that's lingered since February.
The first overall pick in the 2008 draft called Games 1 and 2 a learning experience that will benefit him as the first playoffs series of his progresses.
"It's different. You can say all you want and watch as many playoff games as I did over the past couple of years - until you play in one, you don't realize how intense it is, how hard you have to compete," said the third-year pro, who shared the Rocket Richard trophy for the league's top goal scorer with the Penguins' Sidney Crosby last season.
On the ice
Tonight: Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m.
Series: Best-of-7 tied at 1-1
"Everyone's coming to take your head off out there," Stamkos continued, "and you've still got to be able to be patient and make the play."
Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik delivered a heavy and clean check on Stamkos early in the Penguins' 3-0 victory at home last Wednesday. Tampa Bay rebounded to tie a franchise record for goals in a playoff game to even the best-of-seven series on Friday night.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher has encouraged his young star to focus on other aspects of the game, rather than worrying about scoring goals.
After all, with proven stars such as Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier on the ice, Tampa Bay has more than enough firepower to challenge the Penguins defensively.
"You look at the playoffs. ... The team that wins the Cup is the best team. Everybody contributes, everybody does little things to make the team better," Lecavalier, the Lightning captain, said. "It doesn't mean that if you don't score a goal the first two games that you're not having a good series."
Indeed, Stamkos doesn't feel he played poorly in Pittsburgh. He said his confidence is building and that returning home for the next two games should help, too.
"You know it's going to come," he said of the prospect of scoring more goals. "But at this time of the year, as long as your team is winning, you're happy."
The Lightning had Saturday off after returning home from Pittsburgh. Several players, including Stamkos, spent of part of the day at a Tampa Bay Rays game as guests of Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau.
It was back to work Sunday with a practice session that lasted about an hour. Splitting the first two games on the road shifted home-ice advantage to Tampa Bay.
Boucher cautioned, however, that means little. Pittsburgh is 9-1 in Game 3 of playoff series since 2008.
"To me it's not about home ice," the first-year coach said. "We're expecting them to make some adjustments. We're making adjustments. That's the nature of the game."
The Penguins contributed to their own demise in Game 2, committing costly penalties that gave Tampa Bay six power play opportunities.
Lecavalier and St. Louis converted two of them, fueling the surge against goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said discipline will be important with the series moving to Tampa.
"We know that will be a factor for us going forward. ... That's the balance in a playoff series, being able to get teams into an uncomfortable position and getting them off their games by the way you play or getting under their skin or with your power play or other factors," Bylsma said.
"The composure and focus we showed in Game 1 was not there in Game 2, and it caused not only to give them power plays but also for us to get off playing our game for large portions of that game. It's something we have to be better at. That happens in every playoff series. The successful teams that win ... understand that, and they stayed composed and don't let things rattle them."