Since entering the NHL as an 18-year-old rookie, Steven Stamkos had never known what it was like to play a hockey game without Marty St. Louis.
Whether it has been with the Lightning, for Team Canada at the World Championships or in the All-Star game, the two had shared the same ice surface for every game Stamkos ever played as a professional.
That changed last week when St. Louis was struck near his left eye with an errant puck that will keep him out action until his eye heals.
With St. Louis out of the lineup, however, Stamkos has raised his level of play – he has three goals and five points in the past two games heading into tonight's game against the Blue Jackets – while assuming some of the leadership that St. Louis normally carries.
"We've been hit with some injuries and I feel that he's taken charge and wants to be a difference maker,'' said St. Louis, who worked out for an hour on Friday after doctors cleared him to resume physical activities. "It's almost like, 'I'm going to pull this team'' attitude and he's done that the past few games and it's nice. We need that. Our backs are against the wall right now and we want to finish strong before Christmas. And I'm out, (Matt Gilroy) is out, we need guys that want to step up and lead this team at a time of adversity.''
Against New Jersey on Monday, Stamkos scored twice in the final period before the comeback fell short in a 5-4 loss. On Thursday, when Calgary rallied in the third to wipe out a two-goal Lightning lead, Stamkos was one of the main voices trying to keep things calm before he went out and scored the game-winner just 30 seconds into overtime.
"He's definitely more vocal right now, but he leads by example, by how he plays and he plays hard,'' Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "He's scored some big goals for us and taken his game to a new level.''
During training camp, Stamkos talked about wanting to take on more of a leadership role, taking some of the lessons he's learned from the likes of St. Louis and Lecavalier and applying them, while adding in his own ideas along the way. The St. Louis injury has allowed Stamkos to show that side of his game even more.
"It was noticeable before, but obviously it's an opportunity now for him to take a part of that lead,'' Lightning head coach Guy Boucher said. "He's affirming himself, whether it's verbally, on the ice or off the ice. You can see when somebody wants something and he wants it, and he's charging through it. To me, that's the number one sign -- he's not folding even though it's a tough stretch.
"Right away in terms of actions, that's leadership, and basically leadership is action. You can talk all you want but if you don't have the action to go with it, that's not leadership. So he's basically been showing that he can go through adversity charging, and that's huge.''
Stamkos said he's not trying to do anything different or special than what he was doing before, just perhaps being a little more conscious about it while he goes about trying to help the team pull out of its slump.
"For me it was just realizing that Marty was out, and I'd never played a game without Marty before and you can definitely notice his (absence) when not in the lineup,'' Stamkos said. "I told myself that I needed to step up, whether it was in the room or lead by example on the ice. It had to be done, because we knew what we were missing with Marty out.''