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Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos could make it a dynamic scoring race

Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates his second period goal against the Boston Bruins during an NHL hockey game Monday, Nov. 22, 2010, in Tampa, Fla. The NHL's scoring race is not only compelling because of the two men on top. One quarter of the way through the NHL season, co-leaders Crosby and Stamkos are on pace to register the league's highest point totals in 15 years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris O'Meara

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Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates his second period goal against the Boston Bruins during an NHL hockey game Monday, Nov. 22, 2010, in Tampa, Fla. The NHL's scoring race is not only compelling because of the two men on top. One quarter of the way through the NHL season, co-leaders Crosby and Stamkos are on pace to register the league's highest point totals in 15 years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris O'Meara

It's setting up as a memorable NHL scoring duel and not just because of the names at the top.

Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby have separated themselves from their peers a quarter of the way into the NHL season, racking up points at a rate not seen around the league in 15 years.

They both sat at 35 points through Monday's games—putting them on pace to top 130. That hasn't happened since Mario Lemieux captured the Art Ross Trophy with 161 points in 1995-96.

While some might expect the pace to slow as the season wears on, it's possible the Pittsburgh Penguins captain and Tampa Bay Lightning forward could spur one another on. Recall that they tied for the league lead in goals last season, with Crosby scoring twice in his final game to briefly move ahead before Stamkos matched him with one into an empty net later in the day.

"All those top players want to be considered the best," Penguins GM Ray Shero said Tuesday. "Whether it was last year with the Rocket Richard when (Crosby) scored 51 and then Stamkos scored 51 as well—I think between them it was a bit of a race. It went down to the final day of the year.

"I would think (the scoring race) is in the back of their mind (now). They're cognizant of it."

Stamkos has grabbed more headlines so far this season. He's scored 20 goals over the first 21 games—prompting some to start asking if he might become just the ninth player ever to score 50 in 50.

Playing on a line with Martin St. Louis and Steve Downie, he's also been getting assists and is currently on pace for 137 points.

Shero has watched the 20-year-old play against his team a fair bit over his first two-plus seasons in the NHL and marvels at his progression.

"He's one of those guys when he's on the ice you're just praying he's not around the puck," said Shero. "He's got great speed, a great release, an unbelievable shot—he is a really, really dangerous player. There's only maybe a handful of guys like that in the league."

Stamkos is vying to extend an unusual trend in the NHL. A different player has won the scoring race each of the past nine seasons, dating back to the last of Jaromir Jagr's titles in 2000-01.

One of those players was Crosby, who won the Art Ross as a sophomore in 2007 when he registered a career-best 120 points.

Now in his sixth season at the age of 23, he continues to work hard on his game. Crosby is in the midst of a nine-game point streak that has seen him reel in Stamkos with nine goals and 20 points.

"He's got it going," said Shero. "He's driving the net, he's shooting the puck—there's a lot of different things to his arsenal. Every time he's on the ice he seems to make something happen.

"He's putting up the points now and I guess there's no coincidence that we're winning some hockey games as well."

Crosby has played one more game than Stamkos this season and is on pace for a shade over 130 points.

The highest total post-lockout came from Joe Thornton, who had 125 points while splitting the 2005-06 season between Boston and San Jose.

The average scoring champion over the past 13 years finished with 111 points—one fewer than Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik Sedin registered last season.

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Our weekly rankings feature some jockeying near the top, but not at No. 1. Here's a look at how we see the NHL from top to bottom (with last week's ranking):

1. Detroit (1): The league's top team in goals per game is doing it by committee—nine each for Daniel Cleary and Johan Franzen, and seven apiece for Pavel Datsuyk and Henrik Zetterberg.

2. Philadelphia (4): Peter Laviolette finally gave Sergei Bobrovsky some rest and the Flyers went right on winning. They've picked right back up where they left off in the playoffs.

3. Washington (2): The expectations for this team are clear when coach Bruce Boudreau is quibbling about its performance while leading the Eastern Conference. Is it April yet?

4. Montreal (6): TheHabs gave a fitting tribute to Pat Burns prior to Saturday's game with Toronto, one of many around the league for the team's former coach. May he rest in peace.

5. Los Angeles (3): On the ice, Justin Williams is quietly leading the way with 21 points in 20 games. In the boardroom, GM Dean Lombardi is quietly trying to figure out what Drew Doughty's next contract should look like.

6. Columbus (17): Buoyed by a four-game winning streak, they've become the early favourite for the surprise team of the season. Rick Nash has been earning his paycheques lately.

7. St. Louis (7): The Scottrade Center has become a tough place to visit as the Blues sport an 8-1-0 record on home ice. Brad Boyes is showing signs of life after a slow start with goals in four of five games.

8. Pittsburgh (13): One more measure of Crosby's great start: He's already got 14 more points than teammate Evgeni Malkin.

9. Tampa Bay (19): Martin St. Louis is on pace for another 90-point season. He's played a big part in helping Stamkos develop into a prime-time NHL player this quickly.

10. Vancouver (5): A hint of frustration is setting in after losses in four straight games. Captain Henrik Sedin is urging fans to look at the big picture.

11. Colorado (14): Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla used a recent column to suggest that hockey might be dead in the city. At least it's alive and well on the ice, where the Avalanche have won four straight games.

12. Chicago (12): In the midst of a 12-night road trip, the Blackhawks have already seen a bit of everything—big wins in Edmonton and Vancouver, and a big loss in Calgary. Next up is a date with San Jose and former teammate Antti Niemi.

13. Phoenix (16): You might win a few bets if you asked someone outside of Glendale who leads the team in goals (answer: Radim Vrbata with six). In other news, Twitter star Paul Bissonnette is still looking for a cellphone that was stolen in Edmonton over the weekend.

14. Boston (8): It's great to see Marc Savard back on the practice ice as he attempts to return from a concussion. What will GM Peter Chiarelli do to keep his team compliant with the salary cap?

15. N.Y. Rangers (10): The decision to give Martin Biron some playing time is paying off. Henrik Lundqvist's backup has posted victories in four straight starts.

16. San Jose (11): Joe Thornton has gone cold and the Sharks have continued to followed their captain. The big centre has only two points during a 3-2-2 stretch for the team.

17. Anaheim (9): It's been a topsy-turvy season for the up-and-down Ducks. They currently find themselves in another nosedive with losses in five straight games.

18. Minnesota (18): A tough break for Guillaume Latendresse, who will be out for an extended period with a torn labrum in his hip. Perhaps waiver wire pickup Patrick O'Sullivan will make the most of his latest opportunity.

19. Ottawa (15): If any team was deserving of a missed call, it was probably the Senators. They've experienced a tough 10 days on and off the ice.

20. Dallas (23): The Brad Richards rumours went into overdrive as the team played a couple games in Canada. He probably won't be moved until Feb. 28—if at all.

21. Nashville (20): The Predators were called for six straight penalties in a loss to Toronto last week and coach Barry Trotz blamed his team rather than the referees. Accountability is a priority for the Predators.

22. Atlanta (21): Dustin Byfuglien scores another nice overtime goal. Make that four game-winners already for the defenceman-turned-forward-turned-defenceman.

23. Carolina (24): The acquisition of defenceman Ian White could end up being a savvy move by GM Jim Rutherford. He's the latest in a long line of ex-Leafs to join the Hurricanes organization, including Jiri Tlusty, Jay Harrison, Justin Pogge and coach Paul Maurice.

24. Toronto (27): Is Jonas Gustavsson the No. 1 goalie? Is Phil Kessel, fresh of a benching, part of the No. 1 line? No shortage of burning questions around this group.

25. Buffalo (22): It's a bad sign when level-headed coach Lindy Ruff is throwing tantrums during practice. He must have detected some bad habits that aren't showing up in games just yet.

26. Florida (26): Strange stat—Panthers forward David Booth had 14 shots in a game against the Boston Bruins last week. Fourteen!

27. Calgary (25): Jarome Iginla has broken out of his slump in a big way with six goals in three games. It was only a matter of time.

28. Edmonton (29): Defenceman Ryan Whitney has been logging the most ice time and putting up the most points. He carried 17 assists into Tuesday's game at Phoenix.

29. New Jersey (28): It took 88 points to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs last season. From this point on, the Devils need to play 13 games above .500 to reach that total.

30. N.Y. Islanders (30): When will the Islanders win again? It's been a month since their last victory, going 0-11-2 over that stretch. A promising start has long since been forgotten.

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