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The hottest stick in hockey was packed quickly, stowed in an equipment bag and carted onto the waiting truck. There was no magic in the wand last Saturday in Buffalo—no goals, not even a measly assist—but there was the not insignificant matter of a 2--1 Lightning win, so the sleek black stick that had produced a hat trick two nights earlier in Philadelphia would be retained for at least one more game.
Steven Stamkos is not as superstitious as he is rational: He needs a better reason to change than a game in which he was held without a point. He scored 51 goals last season with a red Bauer supreme one95 model stick, tying for the NHL lead with Sidney Crosby (a Reebok guy, by the way), but understood that in his role as "the face of Bauer sticks"—the hands, actually, he would be obliged to switch to the company's top-of-the-line supreme totalone for 2010--11. Still, at the start of the season Stamkos stubbornly clung to a half dozen of the old red sticks he had husbanded. (All his models have a pronounced toe curve and a 95 flex in the shaft, whippy but nothing like Alex Ovechkin's palm-tree-in-a-hurricane 75 flex.) Stamkos finally made the switch when he broke the last old stick in October, and the transition has been seamless: one hat trick with the old and another with the new, a corollary to the adage that it is a poor craftsman who blames his tools.
In his third season, at age 20, Stamkos, who leads the NHL with 19 goals and 34 points, is claiming his place alongside or even atop Crosby and Ovechkin. From Feb. 17, 2009, through Sunday, Stamkos has 86 goals, nine more than Crosby and 11 more than Ovechkin, the plow horses dragging hockey into plain sight in the 21st century.
Of course, Stamkos really already had found his place: the left face-off circle.
Study a shot chart of the center's goals since 2009--10. The left circle, around the face-off dot, looks like a Google Earth picture of a shopping mall on Black Friday. He scored 22 from that circle last season, five so far this year. Coach Guy Boucher emphasizes mobility on the Lightning's amoeba of a power play, and Stamkos, a righthanded shot, indeed pops up in the slot, or on the right side, practically everywhere. Ten of his 19 goals in 20 games have come from below the circles—so-called "dirty areas"—which underscores that hockey's best pure shooter is improving as an impure shooter. (Stamkos had five tip-in goals last season, but his first two goals this year came on deflections.) Clearly his sublime hand-eye coordination can produce tip-ins, but that's like saying Pavarotti could also sing Happy Birthday. He is a goal scorer, with one noteworthy distinction. Like Wayne Gretzky's "office" behind the net, Stamkos's playpen is the left dot, launching pad for hockey's biggest weapon—his one-timer.
"He's kinda claimed that spot that was reserved for [Brendan] Shanahan, Ovechkin and myself," says Brett Hull, 46, who scored 741 career goals. "I watch him on TV and I go, 'Boy, does that ever look familiar.' "
Stamkos and Hull share Twilight of the Gods one-timers because of a nearly singular ability to blast them off any pass in the same zip code as their stick. Stamkos benefits from playing with slick right wing Martin St. Louis—St. Louis has the first assist on 22 of Stamkos's last 70 goals—but estimates he must adapt his one-timers to errant passes or bouncing pucks 30% of the time. Like Hull, Stamkos is nimble enough to make adjustments—one stride forward or a half step back—but also is able to contort his torso and torque his hips to elevate the shot. His wheelhouse is the size of a Vladimir Guerrero strike zone.
"We had Ales Kotalik, who could one-time it just as good as Stamkos, but the pass had to be perfect," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff says of the ex-Sabre. "If you were serving it to him on a plate, it wasn't even a dinner plate. Maybe a side-serving plate. But Stamkos's plate is ..." and Ruff extends his arms wide, a figurative silver platter. Stamkos's form is as textbook as his timing, nothing like the slingshot of Ovechkin, the only player to top 60 goals in a season this century. "If hockey were golf," St. Louis says, "they would break down his swing and everyone would try to copy it."
While shooting percentage is a hollow statistic in a sport in which a shot on goal is never a bad play, Stamkos's numbers seem indicative of accuracy, not just circumstance. He is scoring at a 25.3% rate, primarily because of his ability to tuck the puck six inches under the crossbar. (His percentage ranks fourth in the NHL behind the Bruins' Milan Lucic, the Ducks' Saku Koivu and the Avalanche's David Jones, none of whom has taken more than 35 shots compared to his 75.) "Ovechkin can [go top shelf] too, sometimes," Boston goalie Tim Thomas says. "But he doesn't do it as often as Stamkos."
"You have to know when Stamkos is on the ice," Ruff says. "Like Ovechkin, we make sure to overplay him. You play the odds. I'd rather see somebody else shoot."