|Senators forward Milan Michalek is tied for the NHL goal-scoring lead with Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's not a place the Czech winger expected to find himself at this point in the season (Photo by Dale MacMillan/Getty Images).
Milan Michalek isn't ready to insert himself into the thick of this race just yet.
But the numbers don't lie. Check out the leaderboard among the National Hockey League's top goal scorers and you'll find the Ottawa Senators forward right there alongside a pair of bona fide snipers — Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a former Rocket Richard Trophy winner, and Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs. All have hit the back of the net 16 times this season to date.
Depending on what happens tonight, the speedy — and yes, unheralded, it must be said — Michalek could find himself on top of that pack. Stamkos and Michalek square off tonight at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200), while Kessel and the Leafs visit Madison Square Garden to face off against the New York Rangers.
Milan Michalek, NHL goal-scoring champ? You won't catch the Czech winger buying into that line of thinking just yet.
"It's nice to be up there with those guys," Michalek admitted after the Senators' pre-game skate earlier today. "They're great players, but I'm just happy things are going good for me right now. I know it's going to be something to talk about, but I don't really compete with them.
"I think about it as a game we have to win after a long road trip."
While Senators centre Jason Spezza acknowledges Michalek isn't likely to be classified as a pure sniper, there's no arguing with the results. Credit the 6-2, 225-pounder's ability to make the most of his size and opportunities around the net
"They're different types of players," Spezza said when asked to compare Michalek and the two players with whom he currently shares the league lead. "Milo's not quite the pure shooter those guys are, but he's found his niche and he knows how to score. He's not the pure one-timer guy that Stamkos and Kessel are, but he's definitely a guy who can compete with those guys goal-scoring wise because he's found a way to get himself in the right spots."
Michalek also has top-end speed, which makes him a threat barrelling down the wing. But like many things about him, it's underrated in NHL circles.
"His speed is second to none in the league," said Spezza. "In our room, we know how fast he is and how effective he can be. He's got that game breaker speed and he's had some good finishes (around the net) early in the year."
"Milo's not quite the pure shooter those guys are, but he's found his niche and he knows how to score. He's not the pure one-timer guy that Stamkos and Kessel are, but he's definitely a guy who can compete with those guys goal-scoring wise because he's found a way to get himself in the right spots." - Jason Spezza
Ask Michalek about his sensational start — his career best is 26 goals, recorded during his sophomore NHL season with the San Jose Sharks — and he points immediately to his good health. The 26-year-old forward, who was acquired by the Senators as part of the Dany Heatley deal in September 2009, has been plagued by injuries during his first two seasons in Ottawa, missing a total of 32 games.
"The last two seasons in Ottawa, I had lots of injuries," said Michalek, one of the leading vote-getters among forwards in fan balloting for the 2012 Tim Hortons NHL All-Star Game at Scotiabank Place. "But now I'm confident and healthy, and I hope it'll stay like that."
Captain Daniel Alfredsson, who currently plays on a line alongside Michalek and Nick Foligno, has noticed the difference good health can make.
"The potential is there, but if (Michalek) can stay healthy ... that's the big thing," said Alfredsson. "He has the ability to score a lot of goals because his shot is really good and he puts himself in good position. He's really good in front of the net deflecting pucks and getting those loose pucks around the net.
"You're going to go through dry times if you're just a shooter. You're not going to have a shot all the time. But if you get in front of the net, you can deflect pucks and still get goals."
Around the boards
Defenceman Filip Kuba (upper body) skated on his own this morning, but isn't ready yet to return to the lineup. "He's still day-to-day," said Senators head coach Paul MacLean ... No lineup changes for the Senators tonight, meaning Craig Anderson makes his sixth straight start in goal and forward Nikita Filatov remains a healthy scratch. While MacLean said there was "a pretty good debate" about his team's forward alignment, "we felt Bobby Butler has worked real hard through training camp as well as into the course of the season, and has developed has game to the point that the opportunity to play (alongside Spezza and Colin Greening) was Bobby's right now" ... Centre Peter Regin (shoulder) is "coming along as scheduled" in his rehab, MacLean said, adding he's expected to join his teammates at practice later this week ... Fewer than 1,250 tickets remain for tonight's game, including 300 in the Coke Zero Zone for $15 ... It's a busy week for the Senators at Scotiabank Place, with visits by the Washington Capitals (Wednesday) and Vancouver Canucks (Saturday) squeezed around a trip to New Jersey on Thursday.