Heading into tonight's Southeast Division showdown between the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning, the host Caps sit in a familiar position in the standings - atop the Southeast Division (and, for that matter, the Eastern Conference). The Lightning, on the other hand, are in relatively unfamiliar territory, just four points behind the division leaders (with a game in hand), despite having lost three of their last four games.
It would seem that the Caps aren't likely to repeat the cakewalk that was last season's 38-point Divisional victory, which is probably a good thing - the more this team has to put forth a consistent and honest effort during the regular season, the better-prepared they're likely to be come playoff time. It also means that, as CSN Washington's Corey Masisak put it, tonight's game "might be the biggest Southeast Division clash since the Capitals defeated the Carolina Hurricanes in the third-to-last game of the 2007-08 season."
And while the game itself promises to be plenty entertaining (two high-powered offenses with strong power plays and even better penalty kills), all eyes will be focused on one of the match-ups within the match-up: Alex Ovechkin versus Steven Stamkos. The two former first-overall picks were first and second in the League in scoring prior to last night, and Stamkos leads the NHL in goals, picking up where he left off last season as the co-Rocket Richard Trophy winner (which, of course, broke Ovechkin's two-year hold on the award).
Make no mistake about it: these are the top two goal-scorers in the world right now. As you might have heard, since February 17, 2009, no one has scored more (regular season) goals than Stamkos, who has lit the lamp 80 times (in 123 games). Ovechkin is second with 73 tallies (in 111 games, which is actually a slightly higher rate). The margin closes a bit if you back the calendar up three days to include four goals AO scored over two games in the Sunshine State, and since that February 14 game was a head-to-head match-up, we'll use that as a starting point to compare what the two have done over the past 21 months or so. Have a look:
Clearly Ovechkin has benefited from playing with a better supporting cast than Stamkos has had... but that sure is a gaudy point-pace Ovechkin has been on. And Stamkos's power-play goal totals - which conjure up visions of that wicked one-timer of his - represent most of the 39 extra-man tallies he has scored to lead the NHL in that category since he entered the League.
Speaking of Stamkos entering the League, tonight will be his 176th career game (and perhaps the most meaningful one he's played to date). Here's how his first 175 compare to AO's:
If that doesn't make you wax sentimental over early Ovie, I don't know what will. And it will be interesting to see just how long Stamkos can sustain that incredible (nearly historic) shooting percentage.
Finally, since hockey is, after all, a team game, let's take a look at how the two have fared in their head-to-head meetings:
The Caps have been a vastly superior team than the Bolts since Stamkos entered the League, and it shows in that first stat column. But that gap is closing. Tonight, we may get a bit of a look at by how much, and you can bet that Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos will be the focal point of the match-up, tonight and for years to come.