Stamkos checks in as Lightning stuns Pens

Tampa Bay Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos celebrate a second goal by Martin St....

Tampa Bay Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos celebrate a second goal by Martin St. Louis during the third period of Game 3 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Tampa, Florida April 18, 2011. (REUTERS/Mike Carlson)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:36 PM ET

PITTSBURGH - Welcome to the NHL playoffs, Steven Stamkos.

Five games into his post-season career - and not a moment too soon - the Tampa Bay Lightning sniper checked into his first series in a big way Saturday afternoon at the Consol Energy Center.

Not nearly as profoundly as the Pittsburgh Penguins seemed to check out, mind you.

The first two playoff goals of Stamkos’ career, plus an assist for good measure, kept the Lightning alive as part of a 8-2 stunner over the Penguins.

Not only did the Penguins fail to close out on their home ice yet again, they barely competed and must now return to Tampa to face an improving Lightning squad Monday night with a slimmer, 3-2 series lead.

“As much as you want it to happen right away, sometimes it takes a couple of games,” Stamkos said of his playoff lessons which had limited him to just one assist prior to Saturday’s breakout. “It’s your first playoffs and you are naturally going to be nervous as much as you say you are not. You just have to get used to the game.”

The big centre, who has scored more regular-season goals than any other player in the NHL the past two seasons, has improved steadily since struggling in Games 1 and 2.

Most notably, he made the conscious focus to go to the net harder and doing so resulted in both of his goals Saturday, part of an outburst that at one point had the Lightning on top 7-0.

Everyone wanted Stamkos to pick it up, not the least of all the 21-year-old Unionville, Ont. native himself.

His team. The Tampa fans. Poolies who took a shot on him snapping out of the funk that limited him to five goals in his previous 33 games.

One person who didn’t apply the pressure, however, was Tampa coach Guy Boucher. He counselled his star to soak up the tougher requirements of playoff hockey, but most importantly Boucher told Stamkos to do be patient.

“If you have a flower and you want it to grow, if you pull on it it’s not going to grow faster,” Boucher said. “This kid has figured out what the playoffs are all about. I knew he would, I was just hoping it would be this year.”

Stamkos’ assist may have been even more impressive than his goals, both of which came on rebounds, after he stripped the puck from defenceman Paul Martin then delivered a crisp pass right on the tape to Vinny Lecavalier.

In some ways, the breakthrough of Stamkos was a much milder surprise than the collapse of the Penguins, who have now been outscored an alarming 13-3 in their past two games at home.

Even ex- Maple Leafs got in on the action when defenceman Pavel Kubina with a pair and centre Dominic Moore scored in the third period. The Lightning had never scored more than five in a playoff game in franchise history and had matched that total with 27 minutes still remaining.

So what a bizarre and unpredictable series this has become.

The home team has won just once in five as the edge in play has fluctuated wildly from game to game. Even with a slow start on Saturday, in which the Pens controlled the play for the first 15 minutes, the Lighting devoutly stuck to Boucher’s plan of waiting and not forcing opportunities and were rewarded with a pair of goals just 46 seconds apart.

When it got to 4-0 just 5:31 into the second, the floodgates were wide open as the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin-less Penguins lacked the firepower to pull off one of the great comebacks that are so common these playoffs.

With those two stars absent, however, perhaps another has emerged.

“I wanted to be part of this team’s success in the playoffs and prove to myself and my teammates that I can play in these pressure situations,” Stamkos said. I just felt that in each and every game I was getting better and better.

“That was definitely the biggest game of my career.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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