TAMPA — For Steven Stamkos, the Rocket Richard Trophy, which he has won two of the past three years as the league's top goal-scorer, "never loses its thrill."
Even so, the Lightning center said the prospect of winning it again this season "is not something I'm losing any sleep over." Perhaps not, but with games dwindling and the playoffs wishful thinking, the spotlight on what should be a horse race between two of the league's biggest stars will get only more intense.
Stamkos, who has led almost out of the gate, and Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin, who has 17 goals in his past 15 games, are tied for first at 26 goals.
The Lightning has nine games left, starting tonight against the Penguins at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the Capitals eight. The teams play each other once more, Saturday in Washington.
"He's on a pretty impressive pace," Stamkos said of Ovechkin. "He's a great player. We all know that. It's going to be fun down the stretch."
For Stamkos, though, winning a third Richard Trophy in four years — he won it last season with 60 goals and in 2010 tied Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby with 51 — might include unwanted history given Tampa Bay likely will miss the playoffs for a second straight season.
Not since Florida's Pavel Bure in 2000 and 2001 and Calgary's Jarome Iginla in 2002 has the league's top goal-scorer come from a nonplayoff team in consecutive seasons.
There also is this: Stamkos' 50 points are second in the league. And with Crosby, who leads with 56, out with a broken jaw, Stamkos has a chance to become the first player since Ovechkin in 2008 to lead the league in goals and points.
"It seems like we're in the same boat every year," said Marty St. Louis, Stamkos' longtime linemate who has assisted on 17 of his goals. "We're trying to get him the goals and help him out."
Stamkos can also help St. Louis, whose 49 points, on nine goals and 40 assists, have him challenging for the scoring title.
"Who knows if Sid is going to come back?" Stamkos said. "That's the thing. You just try to focus on every game. If it happens, great, and hopefully it does happen. That'd be nice. But I think (he and St. Louis would) both trade those for a chance at the playoffs."
Though that possibility is remote at best, Tampa Bay is not mathematically eliminated. And that is why coach Jon Cooper doesn't see the scoring races overshadowing what the team is trying to accomplish.
In fact, he said, it all goes hand-in-hand: "We're just putting ourselves into a position to get better as a team and to win. But for us to do that, we need those guys to get points for us. If we want to win, those guys have to score for us."
The danger is players altering their game to get Stamkos the puck.
And captain Vinny Lecavalier said Stamkos' chase of the Richard Trophy "is definitely on our minds."
"A lot of times, the good play is to give it to him," Lecavalier added. "But at the same time, we have to play the game. You can't force anything."
"You have to realize whatever happens happens because you're working hard and playing the right way," Stamkos said. "You're not cheating to score goals."