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Pittsburgh Penguins coach puts Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos among NHL's top three players

TAMPA — The thing about scoring 51 goals in your second season — as Lightning center Steven Stamkos did in 2009-10 — is it makes subsequent accomplishments seem kind of matter-of-fact.

Asked about Stamkos' league-best 15 points and that he entered Tuesday tied for the lead with eight goals and three on the power play, Penguins star Sidney Crosby said, "It doesn't surprise me. He's obviously been consistent as far as last year."

But put both seasons together, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said, and perhaps it's time to include Stamkos with Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin when debating the game's best player.

"I haven't seen him enough to say he's as good as Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby," Bylsma said, "but I can safely say he's probably there, just in the estimation of what I see and the goals he put up last year and the two games I've watched this year.

"He's a dynamic player who can change the outcome of a game or the look of a game at any moment. Those attributes are only for a few people."

Clearly, it is unfair to boil down tonight's game at the St. Pete Times Forum between the Lightning and Penguins to two players. But how can we not at least keep an eye on Stamkos, 20, and Crosby, 23, especially if they are on the ice together, in their first meeting since tying for last season's goal-scoring title?

Crosby, in his sixth season, has a team-best six goals and 11 points. He led Canada to the gold medal at February's Vancouver Olympics, and the only season he did not have at least 100 points or 30 goals (2007-08, when he had 72 and 24), he played just 53 games because of injury.

"He's just so smart out there," Stamkos said. "His skating is so good. His puck protection is probably the best in the league, and he goes to those dirty areas."

But Stamkos, with his wicked one-timer, skating speed and dynamic ice presence, is horning in on the elite turf occupied so long by Crosby and Ovechkin.

"I've heard media people predict him as an MVP," Bylsma said.

Added Lightning center Dominic Moore: "I always knew that he was a sniper, but what I've come to see are the intangibles, the things that aren't visible to the naked eye, things like his character, his drive, his work ethic. Those are the things I'm impressed with."

All those attributes have come into play as teams pay more attention to Stamkos, especially on the power play on which Stamkos last season had a league-high 24 goals. Stamkos even admitted he hasn't been able to get off his one-timer from the left faceoff circle as often because "teams are taking that away."

The result: he has only one goal using that shot from his favorite spot.

But it also means Stamkos has succeeded finding other ways to score, by tip-ins and getting to the net while going against the opposition's top defenders.

It is a sign Stamkos, with 30 percent of the team's 27 goals, has upped his game.

"I just think when I came into this year I was really confident," he said. "I put in a lot of hard work this summer. I'm just happy to be able to contribute to the team's success early on. It's something I wanted to do. It's something I expect of myself."

Expectations are equally high from coach Guy Boucher, who wants Stamkos to be a "complete player." That is why he harps on Stamkos to improve his defense.

Not that he is bad, Boucher said. "He just has to go through the normal steps of a young player having to manage a game. … He's no different than any other guy. He's just at the beginning of the process."

And we're just at the beginning of the Stamkos-Crosby-Ovechkin debate.

GAGNE ON IR: Left wing Simon Gagne (neck strain) was put on injured reserve, and center Blair Jones was called up from AHL Norfolk.

Gagne's designation is retroactive to Thursday, when he was hurt by a check into the boards from the Islanders' Michael Grabner. Players must stay on IR at least seven days.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

.TONIGHT

Lightning vs. Penguins

When/where: 7:30, St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa.

TV/radio: Sun Sports; 620-AM.

Key stats: The Lightning is 1-5-0 the past three seasons at home against the Penguins after going 6-0-0 the three seasons before that. … Pittsburgh C Mark Letestu entered Tuesday leading all rookies with four goals and tied for the league lead with seven points. … The Penguins are 3-0-1 on the road and entered Tuesday with a league-best seven points.

Pittsburgh Penguins coach puts Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos among NHL's top three players 10/26/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 27, 2010 9:18am]
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