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Steven Stamkos refuses to let Lightning lose facing elimination

TAMPA — Steven Stamkos has worn the C on his jersey for more than a decade, and as much as being the Lightning’s captain means to him, it’s the bolt on his chest that means more.

That logo is representative of the winning organization Stamkos has helped build. And even though he’s seen many of his former teammates go on to wear other uniforms, Stamkos’ pride in everything he’s accomplished with the Lightning remains strong.

That’s why on Saturday night — a night that very well could have been his final game in a Lightning uniform — Stamkos wouldn’t let the Lightning lose Game 4 of their first-round series against the cross-state rival Panthers.

The Lightning extended their season for at least another game — and down 3-1, the odds are still stacked against them — but Stamkos made sure fans went home believing that this team might still have more magic in it.

In Saturday’s 6-3 win, Stamkos led by example, giving his team the two most important goals of the series.

“Throughout the season, if there’s a rough patch or our backs are against the wall like tonight, he’s the first guy to show you how to do it on the ice and everyone just follows along,” said forward Brandon Hagel, who also scored two goals.

“And I think that’s why he’s so good as a leader. His message is unbelievable. The way he talks in the dressing room to bring us together. He talks the talk but he also walks the walk, so that’s a good thing about him.”

When the Lightning were in danger of missing the playoffs in the middle of the season and needed a spark, Stamkos led the way on and off the ice. He played his best all-around hockey, not only picking up the scoring load, but playing strong defensively.

Going into Game 4, the Lightning needed an early lead. They also needed some production from the power play. Stamkos provided both with his goal in the first period, one of his patented one-timers from the left circle at the 8:54 mark that fueled the Lightning to a 3-0 first-period lead.

“We had a great start; that’s something that we’ve been struggling with lately,” Stamkos said. “Obviously to get a power-play goal — that was a big reason why we didn’t have success last game, was we had those power plays early and didn’t capitalize. So to get that was a confidence boost. To go up 3-0 just to start the game and to play with the lead for a little bit, we’ve been chasing all series, so that was huge.”

The Lightning knew the Panthers would push, and they did, forcing Tampa Bay to overcome Florida’s swell and protect a one-goal lead going into the third. That has been a challenge at times this season, but Stamkos came through in the clutch again.

Stamkos circled around to the top of the left circle, shifted his hips and put his stick in the air and took a feed from Nikita Kucherov, whipping a one-timer through traffic and past Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in the top far corner, giving the Lightning a two-goal cushion that recaptured momentum.

“It’s a one-goal lead going into the third,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “So what are you going to do with it? ... Whoever’s going to get the next one is gonna have the momentum and fortunate for us, we got it.”

Stamkos said there was no rah-rah speech, only the realization that going into the third with a one-goal lead was exactly where they wanted to be

“When you’ve got a one- or two-goal lead in the third in the playoffs, that’s where you show your maturity a little bit and show your past experience,” Stamkos said.

Stamkos has scored in each of the first four games of the series, and his five goals are second-most in the league this postseason. With a 35.8 shooting percentage he’s finishing his chances. He has 17 hits and three blocked shots, including one late in Game 3, throwing his body in front of a puck to prevent an empty-net goal.

Leadership by example.

“It’s just who Stammer is,” Hagel said. “He’s been through so many things in his career and he just sticks with it every single night and he just brings it on the ice and brings it in this locker room. It’s not an easy job. He’s been doing it for how many years now with a bunch of different groups of guys. He continues to do it especially in moments like this.”

Again, the Lightning still have a bumpy road ahead of them. Only four teams have rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series, and none has since the 2014 Kings. That team came back to beat the Sharks in the first round, then went on to win the Stanley Cup.

“We knew we needed to win this game and I think it showed with the intensity and in the way we battled and played,” Stamkos said. “Obviously, we pushed the pace in the first and they responded in the second. And we had a little more in the tank tonight. I think we were just a little more desperate under the circumstances.”

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