It's come down to this: Three gunners shooting for one prize, and they've all got a pretty good shot at it but no one honestly can say their guy has it in the bag with only a few games left for each candidate.
With two goals against the Penguins Tuesday, Alex Ovechkin moved into a tie with Sidney Crosby with 48 goals each. Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos
scored in the Lightning's loss to Carolina to give him 47 for the season.
Not since the 2006-07 season has the NHL had this kind of a race for the Rocket Richard Trophy. Ovechkin ran away with the trophy the last two seasons, scoring 13 more goals than his next closest competitor in 2007-08 and 10 more than the No. 2 man last season.
More than just the fact that there is a race, the beauty this season is that the three players score goals in such vastly different fashions.
Crosby gets his nose dirty near the crease and also possesses the most lethal backhand in the game. Ovechkin is powerful off the rush and with his one-timer, but equally adept at getting behind the defense for a breakaway. Stamkos is more of a stationary threat with his quick-release one-timer from the left side, but don't sleep on him in front, either.
To get the analytical perspective on each and to learn what makes them elite, we went right to the men in charge. Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma and Rick Tocchet of the Tampa Bay Lightning break it down for us. Tocchet: Stamkos more than just a one-timer
Stamkos has been potent this season with his one-timer from the left side, especially on the power play. He sets up shop either inside the left circle or just above it, and as the pass is coming he pulls his stick back so he can use his lightning-fast release and accurate shot to beat the goalie before he crosses over in his crease.
Twelve of Stamkos' 47 goals have come off a one-timer from the left side.
"Anyone can take a one-timer, but it has to be a perfect position," Tocchet told NHL.com. "Brett Hull was the best at that, adjusting to the pass, and could still get the puck on net. That's what makes them special -- they adjust in a fraction of a second if the puck changes direction. That's a big part of the arsenal and Stamkos has that."
It's not all he has.
Stamkos has scored 12 of his goals from inside the circles and below the hash marks. His hand-eye coordination is excellent, which is why he's been able to score 4 goals on redirects from the slot and another 3 goals on rebounds in the same area.
"He's starting to realize there are more goals out there and he will go to the net," Tocchet said. "He's starting to realize that he has to go to the dirty areas more and more because you're going to be playing against the top players every night, so now you have to go to different areas of the ice. They're not going to give you that stationary one-timer every time. You have to do different things. For example, a guy like Crosby is great at going to the net and using his backhand."
Since the All-Star break last season, Stamkos has 64 goals. That's the same as Crosby, and just nine fewer than Ovechkin, who has 73. Prior to the 2009 All-Star break, Stamkos had only 6 goals.
Tocchet credits Stamkos' effort on the other side of the ice.
"To me, it all started when his defensive game got better," Tocchet said. "It's night and day from October to February last season to February up until now this season. When these young guys are confident in their own end and they defend well it helps their offensive game tremendously.
"If you can defend well and you go to the net well, as an excellent player in the NHL you get into elite status. I'm not saying he's elite status yet, but he's working towards it." Boudreau: Ovi's power sets him apart
Alex Ovechkin will take just about any shot available to him as long as he sees the tiniest of openings, but what makes him arguably the most exciting player in the world and such a special goal scorer is he can score on just about any shot he takes.
No one else in the League honestly can say that.
"When he has an open shot, and it can be from anywhere," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said when asked if he can think of any one particular place on the ice Ovechkin is the most dangerous. "If he has no one in front of him, it can be awfully difficult for the goalie."
Goalies can attest to the fact Ovechkin can score from anywhere inside the blue line and with just about any type of shot. It shows when you look at the chart of his goals from this season. He scores from just about everywhere once he steps inside the blue line.
Boudreau said Ilya Kovalchuk has similar skills and Phil Kessel's shot makes him dangerous all over the ice, too, "but I don't think anything is as quick and as hard, just flat-out as hard, as Ovechkin's shot."
Part of the reason is the fearless nature Ovechkin has with the puck on his stick. Part of it is a result of the unbelievable and somewhat reckless speed he plays the game with for a player who checks in at 233 pounds.
And another reason why it's hard to argue against Boudreau's analytical assessment is because no one else plays the game with the bullish power Ovechkin does.
Boudreau admits there are times during a game that he leans his back on the glass like a fan would in his seat and thinks to himself, "Wow."
"I've said it a lot of times," Boudreau said. "The speed of the shot, how he can one-time it when it seems like a rocket pass to him. He is pretty impressive. Sometimes he's got eight (shots) blocked, six missed and five on net. The fact that he shoots that many pucks is quite amazing to me." Bylsma: Crosby has a shooter's mentality now
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma points to Sidney Crosby's first goal against Toronto on March 28 as the ideal example of the shooter's mentality No. 87 has developed.
Crosby won a faceoff in the right circle toward the wall. Defenseman Brooks Orpik pinched down to get the loose puck and Crosby, as he typically does, floated toward the net. With a pretty backhanded pass, Orpik found Crosby in the lower part of the circle, and here is where the shooter's mentality came into play.
In the past, Crosby could have shot, but more likely would have looked left for a defenseman or winger on the backdoor play. This time, Crosby didn't even hesitate before wristing the puck past a helpless Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
"There is a different threat to him because he is now putting himself in position to get passes and be a shooter," Bylsma told NHL.com, adding Giguere probably never will play Crosby the same now that he's seen that part of his repertoire first-hand.
"If you were a goalie two years ago he would have gotten the puck and you would be anticipating a pass and maybe you could read it," Bylsma added. "Now he gets the puck, shoots it and in less than a second it's in the back of the net. And maybe in the next game he gets in that position and now you're like, 'Oh gosh,' because you have to react to a shot, but the 'D' goes backdoor and we get a different scoring chance that way."
With Crosby, it's not just shooting to put pucks on net. He's shooting to score and he's doing it from extremely high-percentage areas such as the low slot. He has 48 goals on 285 shots, whereas Zach Parise, Jeff Carter, Kessel, Henrik Zetterberg and Vincent Lecavalier
have scored fewer goals despite taking more shots.
"It's not shooting from everywhere and anywhere, but when he gets the puck in the slot he's developed a shooter's mentality a significant amount more than he did in the past," Bylsma said. "Although he is still the great passer and at times still gets the puck and knows he's going to make a play with it, his mentality in many ways has changed."
Crosby's success goes back to his offseason workout program. He went into the summer saying he was going to improve his shot, and he worked countless hours firing pucks in his little shooter's cage behind his sprawling, lakefront home outside of Halifax, N.S.
He not only improved his shot, but changed his stick to a one-piece and added an ever-so-slight curve after playing with a flat blade for four seasons. Crosby had immediate success, with goals in the first two games and four in the first five this season.
Bylsma believes that had a lot do with Crosby's consistency this season.
"If you are going to develop a shooter's mentality and you analyze it from a stick perspective and you feel a different curve and you practice it more and you drill it into your brain, I don't know how much your skills get better, but I do know that you feel they do when you develop a shooter's mentality," Bylsma said. "He has worked on a technique and is mentally focused on being a better shooter. And he's done it so he has confidence that he is a better shooter with a shooter's mentality."Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer