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Stempniak nets results sans goals

Shortly before noon Wednesday, Lee Stempniak strolled into the visitors' dressing room in HSBC Arena and the entire Buffalo media contingent made a beeline for his locker.

"This is the only attention I've had all year," Stempniak said to one of his St. Louis teammates.

"This doesn't happen in every arena?" a reporter asked.

"Not with one goal," he joked.

It was nice to see that the West Seneca native could make light of his early season scoring drought. One quarter of the way into the season, Stempniak was stuck on one goal. Last year, in his first full season in the NHL, the 24-year-old right wing led the Blues with 27 goals and was rewarded with a three-year, $7.5 million contract.

So Stempniak has been a poor man's version -- relatively speaking -- of the Sabres' Thomas Vanek. A former college star has a breakout offensive year, leading his team in goals in his second NHL season and hits the financial jackpot. But unlike Vanek, Stempniak insists that he hasn't felt the burden of living up to his lucrative new deal.
His team got off to a surprisingly fast start, which surely eased some of the pressure. The Blues, who finished with a miserable 57 points just two seasons ago, are in the thick of the Western Conference race and playing tight defensive hockey under coach Andy Murray.
"The coaches tell me I didn't get the contract to score goals," Stempniak said. "I don't know if that's true. But I think I've done a good job sort of alleviating some of that pressure. They want me to be a more complete player and play in different situations, against teams' top lines. I think goals will be the result of that.
"Goal-scoring is streaky," he said. "You can go 10 games without a goal and then get four in five games. You've got to maintain a confidence and keep playing your game, no matter what. In the last four or five games, I've been getting chances. Hopefully, I'm close."
Stempniak's dry spell reached 19 games Wednesday night in the Blues' 4-3 win over the Sabres. But he'll still have fond memories of his first NHL game in his hometown.
He had family, friends, former youth hockey coaches and teammates in the crowd. Both of his grandmothers were on hand. One, Elva Paoletti, saw him play in the NHL for the first time. His parents, Larry and Carla, were there, of course. Carla had the night off from her job on the midnight shift at the city's main post office on William Street.
Stempniak said he didn't expect to be nervous. But he was excited and proud to finally play a game in the town where he grew up playing hockey.

St. Louis drafted him in the fifth round in 2003. Imagine that, the 148th pick of the draft, an unheralded kid from West Seneca, making the big time and leading a Blues revival.
Stempniak grew a bit emotional when he thought of how much his parents did to make it all possible. The best part of signing the big contract was calling home to West Seneca.
"They've sacrificed so much for me and my brother [Jay, who plays Division III hockey in New Hampshire]," he said. "Their social lives, their free time. Working overtime and things like that. My mom works the night shift. My dad works during the day. So there was always a parent home with us growing up. They took us to everything -- baseball, hockey, golf. I can't thank them enough."
A goal would have been nice. But Stempniak had a fairly uneventful night. He didn't even record a shot on goal for the first time all season. His team got the win, which is always his first goal. But it'll sure be a relief when he finally gets his second.


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