PITTSBURGH -- Steven Stamkos smiled sheepishly, a blush almost apparent. The affable Tampa Bay Lightning star was seemingly embarrassed he's being asked to weigh his game against that of Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby.
"To be compared in the same sentence to him is pretty special for me," the Tampa Bay Lightning sniper said. "I think I still have a long way to go and a lot of things to work on before you get mentioned with a guy like that."
When it comes to this season's National Hockey League scoring race, there aren't any other players more worthy of mentioning.
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Crosby's 34 points lead the League heading into Monday's head-to-head matchup (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) with Stamkos, who is second with 32 points. No one else is within five points of the two respective No. 1 picks (Crosby in 2005, Stamkos three years later), who shared the 2009-10 Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals.
Stamkos might be uncomfortable answering a question comparing him to Crosby, but there's no hesitation in his direct answer when asked who the best player in the game is right now.
"A healthy Sidney Crosby," Stamkos said. "It's tough to argue that fact, in my eyes personally.
"Everyone has their own opinion, but just how dangerous he is on the ice, the way he controls the puck -- exciting things happen every time he touches it. It's always a challenge when you play against (Pittsburgh), and since he's got back healthy this year he's been a force out there."
Crosby has seven three-point games over the previous 30 days and has at least a point in eight of his past nine contests to give him 10 goals and 24 assists in 22 games.
Stamkos carries a nine-game scoring streak into Monday's game, having scored at least one goal in seven of the past eight. His 15 goals lead the League as Stamkos strives for his third Rocket Richard Trophy over the past four seasons.
But Stamkos wants to be known for more than just goals -- and Penguins coach Dan Bylsma says he's done exactly that.
"Initially, you'd like to say that Steven Stamkos is a pure shooting goal-scorer star in our League," Bylsma said. "I think that's a misnomer of where he is good.
"Certainly he can fire the puck and he can shoot the puck, and I think the year he won the goal-scoring race, a majority of his goals were in a certain area of the ice. But he's tough around net, he can skate real well and has got speed and explosive power in his skating, and he's good down low -- and a lot of those areas I'd say the same thing about Sidney Crosby."
Crosby had a career-high 51 goals in tying Stamkos for the League lead in 2009-10. Due to injury, he's been limited to 85 regular-season games since but has 50 goals -- a similar pace.
Stamkos has averaged 52 goals over the past three seasons; his .71 goals per game this season would give him 59 over the course of 82 games.
"Everyone knows about his big shot, and he doesn't need much time or space to get a shot off," Crosby said. "But I think he competes every night, and that's why he's definitely been a consistent player."
Bylsma, likewise, marvels at Stamkos' consistency -- with one small caveat.
"Seeing him at 15 goals and 32 points," Bylsma said, "I think that's a good number to stay at for at least one game."