Capitals keep Steven Stamkos in check … until the last possible minute

Lightning star strikes late to get goal Nos. 57, 58

Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos celebrates his goal as referee Kelly Sutherland signals against the Washington Capitals on Monday, April 2, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. The Lightning won 4-2. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos celebrates his goal as referee Kelly Sutherland signals against the Washington Capitals on Monday, April 2, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. The Lightning won 4-2. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
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TAMPA, Fla. — Steven Stamkos isn’t a secret weapon. At 56 goals through 78 games, he might’ve been the worst-kept secret around the Tampa Bay Lightning. He scores, seemingly at will, and the Washington Capitals knew they had to stop him to win Monday night.

“He can shoot, he can skate, he can stick-handle. He’s got all the tools,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter said earlier in the day. “That’s why whatever league he’s gone to, he’s lit it up. He’s a superstar, that’s all.”

The Caps couldn’t let Stamkos beat him, and then he did. Left open in front with a measly 1:03 left on the clock in a tie game, he scored No. 57 on the season, the heartbreaker in a 4-2 Lightning win.

“Missed assignments a bit and it ends up in your net. When you’ve got guys like Stamkos on the ice, you’ve got to be extra careful,” forward Jason Chimera said. “Pucks seem to find good players, and it found Stamkos right in front of the net there, and he’s not going to miss from there.”

In all fairness, it was an odd carom to Stamkos in front, as Hunter pointed out. Brett Clark’s shot from the point drew attention from the Capitals who tried to get in front of it. But then as Karl Alzner pointed to his teammates to watch Stamkos, Dennis Wideman was unable to tie up his stick in front.

“You think block first, then you think tie up second,” Alzner explained. “Everybody wants to make sure that puck doesn’t get through. It’s just very, very fortunate that it came right to his stick and he was open.”

Michal Neuvirth, who had just robbed Stamkos seconds earlier, had no chance of stopping this one.

“He’s hot. The puck’s going his way,” Neuvirth said. “It was a good shot by the D. It was some screen and just hit me in the toe and right on his stick. Pretty easy goal for him.”

Too easy. Washington recognized Stamkos could score from just about everywhere and needed to be aware of that. In playing 23:59, the 22-year-old was given chances to find favorable matchups.

But Stamkos deserved praise for the game-winner, too.

“He doesn’t end up being there. He goes there,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “He goes to the net, drives and pays the price. It’s not just the skill. There’s a willingness to do the dirty work around the net and along the boards where it hurts the most.”

Stamkos hadn’t killed the Caps until the final minutes. Then he kept it up, scoring an empty-netter, his 58th of the season, with 1.5 seconds left. Barely getting a shot off, Stamkos called it perhaps his “hardest, luckiest, flukiest” goal yet.

With three games left, at Montreal, at Toronto and at Winnipeg, Stamkos should have plenty more chances to join Alex Ovechkin as the only players to hit the 60-goal mark since the lockout.

“The way it’s going right now is the way I want it to keep going the next three games,” Stamkos said. “There’s not a lot of thinking right now; it’s just playing hard and I’m going to the right places and getting some bounces. I’m not going to change anything these last three games.”

The way the puck is bouncing for him, Stamkos likely won’t have to. But he also probably won’t get as easy of a goal as the Caps gave him at the worst time Monday.

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