As soon as the secret got out two years ago that Tampa Bay would select Steven Stamkos
with the first pick of the draft, the kid from Markham, Ont., became part of an exclusive club that includes Sidney Crosby
and Alex Ovechkin
Now, he's earning his membership.
Stamkos is in the hunt for what Ovechkin must believe is his yearly prize, the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy. Stamkos scored his 41st goal in Tuesday's 5-3 loss at Montreal, putting him just three behind Crosby and Ovechkin, who enter Wednesday tied with 44 apiece.
"He's a special player," Lightning coach Rick Tocchet
said. "I talked to Mario (Lemieux) earlier and he even came up to me and said, 'This kid can play.' Mario is probably one of the best players ever to play the game, so for him to say that, that's saying something."
The 20-year-old Stamkos, who added an assist in Montreal, is on a 17-game point streak, during which he has 16 goals and 15 assists. He has scored in six straight games, and with 17 games left Stamkos has a real shot at a 50-goal season.
That probably won't be enough to win the Maurice Trophy, not with Ovechkin and Crosby playing a season-long game of Anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better.
Let's also not forget that Patrick Marleau
has 39 goals with 17 games to play. Marian Gaborik
is stuck on 35, but is a breakout game away from putting himself right back in the race with 16 games remaining. Dany Heatley
and Ilya Kovalchuk
are 10 back with 34 goals apiece.
Stamkos, though, has been all the rave lately.
As a No. 1 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, Stamkos obviously came into the League with the promise of greatness. He scored 58 goals in his final OHL season with the Sarnia Sting, so clearly everyone knew he had a goal-scorer's touch.
However, like most teenagers, it took him a while to get acclimated to life in the NHL.
Stamkos' first NHL goal didn't come until his ninth game, and after ripping in two at Buffalo in late October, he was shut out over the next 13 games. He had another 11-game goal drought and finished the first half of his season with only 4 goals.
He came to life in the second half with 19 goals, and he has 50 goals in his last 82 games.
That's better than just good, but it doesn't compare to Ovechkin, who has 44 goals in only 58 games this season and 59 goals in his last 82. Ovechkin has won the last two Richard trophies, with 65 goals in 2007-08 and 56 last season.
The Capitals' superstar recently broke a six-game goal drought that, due to the Olympic break, extended back to Feb. 7. When he scored his first of two goals against Dallas on Monday, Ovechkin appeared to celebrate as if a great weight fell off his shoulders.
You have to understand that as much as Ovechkin cares about winning the Stanley Cup this season (and he talks about nothing else, really), the last thing he wants is to see his reign as the League's foremost goal scorer fall to Crosby.
He's already watched his main rival win the Stanley Cup (going through Washington in the process) and score the gold medal-winning overtime goal in the Olympics.
"You could see it," Boudreau said of Ovechkin's celebration after his first goal in Monday's game. "He looked up at the sky. … When he has his energy, he is what he is -- the best player in the world."
Crosby is in that pantheon, too, but like Stamkos, he's a new candidate for the goal-scoring prize. His 44 goals in 65 games already is a career-high, topping the 39 he scored in 81 games as a rookie in 2005-06.
He no longer can be viewed as a set-up man; though with 40 assists this season, he does that well, too.
"I'm definitely trying to shoot the puck more; not carelessly, but trying to create something off of that," Crosby said earlier this season. "In the past I probably looked to pass a little bit more, put it at the goalie's pads or throw it to an area. It doesn't always result in goals."
Crosby acknowledges that his new stick -- he went from using a wood blade with no curve to a one-piece with a slight curve -- has enabled him to gain confidence in his shot.
"I feel like I can score outside a little more than in the past," he said. "That comes with seeing good results. Anyone who scores or any offensive player will tell you that you build confidence the more you see the puck go in, and from different areas, as well. You need to have a sense of confidence if you want to score consistently."
Crosby is doing more than just putting the heat on Ovechkin in the Richard Trophy race, but Stamkos is right behind both superstars as he earns his reputation as one of the League's best players.
Down the stretch they come, and this race is only just getting interesting.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl.