Puck Daddy - NHL

One can argue that, overall, the Washington Capitals' Ovechkin/Backstrom/Knuble trio or the San Jose Sharks' combination of Heatley/Thornton and Marleau are the better line.

But no line in the NHL is hotter right now than Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos(notes) and Steve Downie(notes) of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and there's a better chance that Barry Melrose will return as coach than anyone having predicted that back in October.

Consider:

St. Louis: Saw his point totals decline in consecutive seasons and had armchair GMs figuring out how to rescue him from the S.S. KoulesBarrie and reunite him with John Tortorella in New York. Raise your hand if you thought he'd reverse that trend after being split up from Vincent Lecavalier(notes), to the tune of 78 points in 62 games.

Stamkos: Were it not for the Phoenix Coyotes, he's the redemption story of the season. After a middling, disappointing rookie season that started terribly and ended with 46 points, Stamkos is third in the League in goal-scoring (40) and has 76 points in 64 games. Raise your hand if you thought Sophomore Stamkos would be in the midst of a 16-point scoring streak on March 8.

Finally, raise your hand if you anticipated the resurrection of Steve Downie's career as a two-way NHL player on one of the best lines in hockey. Anyone? Bueller?

Downie has played roughly a quarter of his season on the wing of St. Louis/Stamkos. Since Jan. 2, he has 23 points in 24 games ... along with 92 (!) penalty minutes. That dichotomy is why they're chanting his name in the cheap seats this season, according to the Tampa Tribune:

"It's been a big improvement from my first two seasons," said Downie, a first-round pick in 2005 who frustrated Philadelphia management with his penchant for drawing suspensions and playing undisciplined. "I've been a fourth-line player and I knew I could contribute more."

Saturday's late outburst was a case of Downie finishing what he started. Skating down left wing, Downie passed across to Marty St. Louis and then left his feet to flatten Atlanta center Marty Reasoner(notes). After his shot was stopped, St. Louis was standing behind the net without the puck when he was leveled by Clarke MacArthur(notes) of the Thrashers.

With St. Louis in a daze, Downie immediately took off after MacArthur and the ensuing skirmish left Downie with a double-minor for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct, prompting a sellout crowd to voice its approval.

The play in question:

Is it possible to believe that this guy has turned the corner from head case to Bobby Clarke circa 2010?

Is he still the guy who butt-ended Akim Aliu(notes) in the mouth during practice in the OHL, earning a suspension and anger management classes? The guy who attacked the ref? The guy to whom the following lead paragraph from The 700 Level applies?

The Legend of Steve Downie grows. ... From knocking that guy's teeth out in juniors, to the Dean McAmmond(notes) aerial, the Jason Blake(notes) punch, and everything in between, Downie's been a skating suspension highlight for the span of his brief career.

Lightning Coach Rick Tocchet believes that's in the past, and that there's a work ethic and maturity inherent to Downie this season that wasn't there before. From the St. Pete Times:

Tocchet said Downie, 22, has taken his game to another level in his second season in Tampa Bay for one simple reason: He's a tireless worker, getting on the ice 20 minutes before practice shooting and passing. "He's applied himself," Tocchet said.

"It's not a surprise to me; maybe to people who didn't know him," Stamkos said. "He's gotten a shot here, and he's taking advantage of the opportunity."

Downie spent last summer working out with Lightning strength and conditioning coach Chuck Lobe, and he may join Stamkos in the offseason and train with former Lightning player Gary Roberts(notes), a renowned workout fanatic. Stamkos spent nearly seven days a week at Roberts' home in the Toronto area last summer and said he felt much stronger and in far better shape this season as a result.

Stamkos is a changed man this season, but it was just a matter of time before that happened. Downie? We're probably not alone in believing he was headed for an AHL flameout after being traded by the Philadelphia Flyers to the Bolts.

Yet here he is with 16 goals and 23 points on what's been the best line in hockey recently, with better offensive numbers than Alex Tanguay(notes) this season. He also has 184 penalty minutes, good for second in the League. Looking down the list of PIM leaders, there's only one other name with his numbers: Sean Avery(notes). If Tampa has found their version in Downie, perhaps this is more than a brief run for him.

But we're still weary of him. He's still "Clownie." There's going to be a moment when the bomb detonates at the wrong time, and it costs Tampa. As Downie said in January: "It falls on me to do the right things and not cross that line."

Raise your hand if you trust him to do that.

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