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Saturday, Nov 17, 2018
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Stanley Cup clock ticking for Steven Stamkos, Lightning

TAMPA — Steven Stamkos had a quiet, uneventful summer.

"Which was a good thing, especially after the last couple of summers," the Lightning captain said Thursday as training camp opened.

Stamkos wasn't rehabilitating a serious knee injury. He wasn't worrying about the effects of a life-threatening blood clot. He wasn't strengthening a snapped leg bone.

"I feel good, and that's all you can ask for," Stamkos said. "I feel confident in the way I was able to train and how the body reacted. (I'm) looking forward to getting out there again and not really having to worry about much. This summer was all about getting stronger and training. I didn't have to worry about rehabbing anything or taking it easy on certain things. So I'm excited to feel pretty normal heading into a training camp."

For the first time in a long time, nothing hurt.

Actually, wait. That's not entirely true. Stamkos, and his teammates, did spend the summer licking the wounds of another heartbreaking loss in the Eastern Conference final.

Another season. Another long playoff run. Another season ending with a frustrating loss instead of hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Frankly, it's getting a little old.

"There are only so many times you can talk about the same things over the past couple of years with the success that we've had," Stamkos said. "We want to take that extra step. You can say it any which way you want, but we're kind of tired of talking about it. We want to go out and do it."

The window is open. It has been for a while. It feels as if this particular team should have won the Stanley Cup already. Three times in the past four seasons, the Lightning has reached the Eastern Conference final. It has only one Stanley Cup final appearance to show for it. The difference between winning one or two or possibly even three Cups at this point has been just a few goals.

It still haunts this team. And it was the topic of conversation Thursday.

Coach Jon Cooper put it best: "Unfinished business."

Last season the Lightning needed to win only once in two games to reach the Cup final. It came up empty. Literally. Shut out in the final two games of the conference final, including Game 7 at home, the Lightning had to watch the Capitals go on a summer-long, worldwide frat party with the Cup. That had to sting.

Heck, forward Alex Killorn is still thinking about losing Games 6 and 7 of the conference final to the Penguins in 2016.

"It lingers, it sits with you, it fuels you, it's frustrating," veteran forward Ryan Callahan said. "You get so close again, you have another great year, but …"

No one carries the weight of this burden more than Stamkos. He's the captain. He's the face of the franchise. He's the leader on the ice and, especially, off the ice. Yes, 20 players dress every night. But let's face it, this is Stamkos' team. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft. It's his job to lead the Lightning to a Stanley Cup. It has been his job for a decade.

The Lightning still brags about how young this team is and how bright its future appears to be.

"We're kind of in a special situation that we've been able to keep this group together," Killorn said.

The window to win the Cup?

"It's going to be open for a while," Stamkos said. "Pretty much everyone is signed for long-term deals. You look at the age of the players, and (they're) still in their prime, and some of them (are) not even in their prime yet. The window is going to be there. It's going to be up to us to make it happen."

But here's the thing. You never know about that window. Injuries, subpar seasons, other teams all conspire to wreck championship dreams. Sometimes windows close and you don't even realize it.

Speaking of which, how much longer is Stamkos going to be a key figure on this team?

He's only 28, but he has been in the league 10 seasons now. And it has been a hard 10 seasons, full of injuries and long, grinding playoff runs.

Last season Stamkos was not the elite player he has been throughout his career. He scored only 27 goals, his lowest for a full season since his rookie year. He tallied only 12 even-strength goals. In 17 playoff games he had only one even-strength goal.

Are those numbers a mere blip in an otherwise Hall of Fame career? Or do they signal the beginning of a decline? This season could answer those questions, which is why there's an urgency for Stamkos and the Lightning to finally win the Cup.

"The expectations inside the (locker) room are there," Stamkos said. "And the expectations outside the room are there."

They are, indeed. Most Las Vegas sports books have the Lightning as the Cup favorite. Stamkos sure hopes they are right.

That way, next year he can have an eventful summer partying with the Stanley Cup.

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