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Steven Stamkos, Lightning offense struggles in playoff loss to Detroit

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All the goals are just a memory now.

All the highlights are just moments from a nicer time.

All the points are just numbers to pretty up the relatively insignificant regular season.

The Tampa Bay Lightning has become unplugged. At the most important time of the year, they suddenly can find no room. The lanes are clogged and the roads are jammed, as they say, and the Bolts have been pushed to the brink of elimination by the Detroit Red Wings. Evidently, this team has a little more growing to do.

The Lightning lost the all-important Game Five of their best-of-seven series Saturday night at home, meaning Detroit only has to win one of the next two to eliminate the Bolts. Given that the Wings have shut out the Lightning in two of their last three games, and that they’ve won roughly 175 of the last 183 and a quarter minutes, you might say that Tampa Bay’s task looks decidedly uphill.

Start, if you will, with Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, where a lot of Lightning stories begin. Stamkos in particular has had a rough series. In five games, he has zero goals and only two assists, and on Saturday night, he managed only two shots. Detroit gummed up most of Tampa Bay’s  high-powered offense (remember?) Saturday night, but in particular, they hounded Stamkos doggedly.

Stamkos is the leader here. No one doubts that. Even now, after a season that was not one of his best (with 43 goals, it was pretty good), he is the face that others look toward. Yet, Stamkos has been invisible for most of these playoffs. He’s been a bystander. Nothing more.

It has been this way the entire series for Stammer, who has not found a breath of air. The Red Wings are a smart, veteran team that can gum up the best of offenses, a fact they tend to bring up on those rare occasions when it appears Tampa Bay has taken a bit of momentum for its own. It isn’t the most exciting style of hockey, but it is monumentally efficient.

What’s that they say in hockey? That in the playoffs, your most important players have to be your most important players. So how do you explain Stammer, still without a goal?

“It’s tough,” he said. “Obviously, I want to produce. It’s not for lack of effort. I’ve been working my tail off out there. If I didn’t think I was competing, I’d be ticked off with myself. I’m working hard.

“I realize it’s not good enough. I just have to be better. These are the things you go through; it just sucks to be going through them now.”

Who doesn’t agree? At one point Saturday night, the Lightning went more than 19 minutes without a shot on goal.

The Lightning, favored in this series, has now been shut out in eight of its last nine regulation periods. Except for a seven-minute burst at the end of Game Four, in which the Lightning won with a dramatic comeback, the Bolts have now been outplayed for 175 of the last 182.25 minutes. They have been shut out for two of the last three games.

“It’s frustrating to not be able to score, especially when you’re used to scoring,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper.

Saturday night, however, it was as the Wings found the plug to the electricity the Bolts have had for much of the season. Tyler Johnson had only three shots. Nikita Kucherov had only two. And no one scored.

“They’ve been in the playoffs for however-many years (24 straight) for a reason,” Stamkos said. “They block shots. They clog up the middle. We have to be better or the season is gone.”

For the Lightning, it would be a cruel way to finish the season. Last year, Tampa Bay was swept in the first round against Montreal. Another first-round loss this year would be hard to take.

Still, the odds are not in their favor. Teams who broke a 2-2 tie to win game five have gone on to win the series at a .787 clip.

I think anyone who has been around sports enough realizes there is isn’t much that needs to be said when your back is against the wall,” Stamkos said. “You have no choice but to win.”

Tampa Bay seemed to have taken the momentum of the series with a 5-1 win in game two, and it appeared to take it again when it pulled out Game Four behind two late goals by Johnson. Each time, however, Detroit has snuffed out whatever impetus the Bolts have had.

“Well, I think the score is a little different than what the game can tell,” said Tyler Johnson. “I don’t necessarily think it was a 4-0 game. You know, they deserved to win, I’m not taking that away from them, but I felt we could have been better. It’s frustrating that we had the chance to score and make it a 1-1 game, 2-1 game or whatever it may have been. It just didn’t work for us, and that kind of changed the momentum of the entire time.”

Tampa Bay has now gone 0-for-20 in the power play in its three losses in the series.

Detroit will try to close out the series and end the Lightning’s season Monday night in Joe Louis. If Tampa Bay could win that one, it would force a Game Seven in Tampa on Wednesday night.

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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