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As Stamkos goes, so do the Lightning

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 09:50 AM

TAMPA He began this season as if he were going to inhale it.

Now he's gasping for air. And so is his team.

He fired 14 shots Saturday night. Eight were on goal. None went in.

It wasn't that way a few months ago. Steven Stamkos would hop over the boards and the red light went on. He'd open his travel bag and a goal would fall out. Now he can't buy one.

He scored 19 times in his first 19 games of this, his third NHL season, and 30 times in his first 38. Now he can't buy one.

He helped power the Lightning to unexpected heights. A 60-goal season seemed possible. Stamkos' second 50-goal season seemed a given.

Those 21-year-old shoulders have sagged a bit.

The head on those shoulders has been invaded by doubt.

You can see it.

"It's something that you feel, in practice, in games, you just don't feel like yourself," Stamkos said Saturday morning. "You just don't have that confidence, that swagger. I don't know if that's the right word. That something that makes you go."

Stamkos is just about the biggest something that makes the Lightning go, and he isn't going right now, and neither are the Bolts.

They lost their third straight game Saturday night, this time 4-2 to the Montreal Canadiens at the Forum. The Bolts hadn't lost three in a row since November. They showed a remarkable lack of jam in falling behind 2-0 in this game. It's a dangerous time for a slide by Stamkos and his teammates. Washington is here Monday night for a monster game, and the Caps might arrive in first place in the Southeast Division. Uh-oh.

The Lightning have scored just eight goals in their past five games, and Stamkos has none of them. He has one goal in his past 11 games and just three in his past 15.

It speaks to just how outrageously good he has mostly been this season that he still leads the NHL with 41 goals, way ahead of his closest competition. Stamkos remains second in the league with 78 points. He's still a legitimate candidate for MVP.

This season rolls, or doesn't, toward the playoffs.

"But our best players have to be our best players," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said.

Your stars have to be stars.

And this particular star looks shaky right now.

"When you get in a little drought, you lose a little of that confidence you had before," Stamkos said before Saturday's game. "... Sometimes you don't have that confidence that you did before, where you get the puck, you know you're going to shoot it right away - and score."

At least he was back to shooting Saturday. He'd had just two shots on goal in his previous four games. He also banged two shots off goal posts. That's the way it's going right now.

It's hard not to wonder if being a marked man is taking its toll on Stamkos. It's hard not to wonder if he's not a little worn down, from the season, from all the attention, on and off the ice.

"You want to be the player that can help your team," Stamkos said. "You expect that out of yourself and your teammates expect that out of you. You've got to do your job, and for me that's creating offensive chances."

But he's fighting it. There is no swagger. You can see it. In the second period, he created an offensive chance for Montreal. Stamkos was in the penalty box for a lazy hook when the Canadiens scored a power-play goal to go up 3-1.

And now comes the stretch drive, a playoff drive, something Stamkos has never been through in the NHL. He knows a lot of eyes will be on him, not to mention bodies and sticks. And there will be expectations.

"Oh, for sure, I expect that out of myself," Stamkos said. "You want to be counted on when things are on the line. ... I'm putting the most pressure on myself. I don't really let that stuff bother me. I've dealt with that before, on different levels, obviously nothing this high, but it's something I'm ready to accept, willing to accept and want to accept."

"He's got to keep on playing," Boucher said. "He can't lose confidence."

If he gets one, he might just get a dozen. You just get that feeling.

"This guy's got character," Boucher said. "He's got will. He's not a wimp."

Early in the third period, the Lightning had a two-man advantage. A pass came out of a scrum along the boards. All of a sudden, the puck found Steven Stamkos alone in front of the Montreal net.

Maybe ...

Canadiens goaltender Carey Price made a superb poke check.

Stamkos tumbled to the ice.

It goes on.

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