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Stars setting pace for 50

Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Marleau, Marian Gaborik and Steven Stamkos are all shooting...

Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Marleau, Marian Gaborik and Steven Stamkos are all shooting for 50 goal seasons. (File photos)

WES GILBERTSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:34 AM ET

It's probably pure coincidence that three tech-types launched YouTube just months before Washington Capitals wrecking ball Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby skated onto an NHL ice surface for the first time.

As long as the arch-rivals are around, though, the video-sharing site can be certain highlight-reel hockey footage will be in plentiful supply.

"Those are the kind of guys that carry the whole league. They're not just fabulous individuals for their own teams, but everywhere they go, people are talking about them and want to see them entertain," said legendary left-winger Bobby Hull, the former Chicago Blackhawks star who rewrote the record books during his Hall-of-Fame career.

"It means a great deal to have those kind of players in your league. We were always proud to talk about the Rocket and Beliveau and Howe and Orr and Mahovlich and Mikita and people like that because they not only entertain their own fans, but people look forward to seeing them come into their building. We used to fill the joint with those type of players."

Since breaking into the league in the aftermath of the 2004-05 lockout, Ovechkin and Crosby have captivated fans with their seemingly endless routine of anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better.

Ovechkin won the tug-o-war for rookie of the year honours. Crosby was first to hoist the Stanley Cup.

They've both had their hands on the Hart Trophy, with Ovechkin winning it twice.

But a true battle for the Maurice Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's leading goal-scorer is uncharted territory.

Until this season, that is.

The superstar snipers entered the Olympic break with 42 markers apiece, setting the stage for a thrilling finish.

Ovechkin, who is tied for the scoring lead despite missing eight outings due to injuries or suspension, is on pace to hit the 50-goal mark for the fourth time in five seasons. Crosby, on the other hand, is on the cusp of joining the exclusive club for the first time.

When Hull scored 50 goals over a 70-game schedule in 1961-62, he followed Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion as the just the third player in NHL history to hit the magic number.

The Golden Jet accomplished the feat three more times before a fourth member joined the club, then added a fifth 50-goal season to his resume in 1971-72. Hull also hit the mark four times with the Winnipeg Jets of the rival World Hockey Association, bringing his grand total to nine.

Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy share the NHL record with nine 50-goal campaigns apiece.

"My father, he would always ride my back and say, 'Oh, you'll never score 50,' and I thought to myself, 'I'll show that sucker I can score 50 goals,' " Hull recalled.

"Of course, the Rocket was legendary and you always tried to keep up with the Joneses, and I was certainly wanting to be as good as I could possibly be. I thought I could score 50. And when I did get close, I made sure I did it."

All eyes will be fixed on the NHL's current star attractions as they try to do just that once action resumes after the Olympic break.

Ask Hall-of-Famer Lanny McDonald about Ovechkin and it's not long until Crosby is part of the conversation, too.

"He is the total package -- both him and Sid," McDonald said. "They're great passers. They love to shoot the puck. They have tremendous confidence in their own abilities, and they're both as excited for their teammates when they score as they are for themselves."

Ovechkin, who has called goal-scoring "my specialty," is accustomed to being at the centre of the celebration. Crosby has been known more for his set-up skills, having finished second on the NHL's assists charts twice before showing more of a shoot-first mentality this winter.

On a road trip through Alberta last month, the Pens captain insisted he's just trying to become a better all-around player. The increased goal production is just part of it.

"I think I always want more. I want more goals. I want more assists," Crosby said in Calgary.

Ovechkin skated away with the goal-scoring title last season, finishing with 56 markers, 10 more than Philadelphia Flyers centre Jeff Carter.

By the time the Capitals superstar buried his 50th goal on March 20, the Maurice Rocket Richard Trophy had likely already been engraved.

Ovechkin and Crosby are not alone this year, though.

Five other sharpshooters -- Patrick Marleau, Marian Gaborik, Steven Stamkos, Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk -- have already eclipsed 30 tallies. They all have an outside shot at joining the NHL's exclusive 50-goal club.

After several near-misses as a Toronto Maple Leaf, McDonald finally hit the magical number with the Calgary Flames in 1982-83, when he finished second in the league with 66 markers.

As he can attest, there's times it feels like you simply can't be stopped.

"When you are a goal-scorer and you get on one of those rolls, you just believe every shift, every game, you're going to score," McDonald said. "At the end of the game, if you haven't scored, it kind of comes as a shock to you. It's like, 'What the heck just happened there?' That's when your confidence is just oozing. You just feel like you can beat a guy or beat a goalie when you least expect it, just because you're on that roll.

"It's pretty cool when you get on that kind of run. And your team feeds off that because, like you do, they believe you're probably going to score every game."

Now you know how the Penguins and Capitals feel.

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ALEX OVECHKIN

Ovechkin has a habit of hanging his milestone pucks on the wall at his home. At this rate, Washington's wrecking ball might have to get the structure reinforced.

Ovechkin entered the Olympic break in familiar territory -- sitting atop the NHL's goal-scoring charts, despite missing eight games due to injuries or suspension.

He's already the two-time defending Maurice Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the NHL's most prolific marksman and, earlier this month, became just the ninth player in league history to record 500 points over his first five seasons.

With 42 goals, the fun-loving Russian is also on pace to hit the 50-goal mark for the fourth time.

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SIDNEY CROSBY

As the Tim Hortons commercials so often remind us, Sidney Crosby has been scoring goals since before he was even tall enough to see over the boards.

Since arriving in the NHL, though, Sid the Kid has never scored at such an impressive clip.

The Penguins captain has already established a career-high for goals -- and he's got 20 more outings to pad those stats after the Olympic break.

Although he's accustomed to registering more assists, Crosby has three hat-tricks and four game-winners. He has scored his fair share of highlight-reel goals already, but he's also buried a few from baffling angles.

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PATRICK MARLEAU

Perhaps that 'C' was slowing him down.

Since being replaced as the Sharks' captain in the off-season, the soft-spoken centre has been a letter of consistency.

Marleau scored twice in San Jose's season-opener at Colorado and has been lighting the red lamp with regularity ever since. He's already registered 10 multi-goal games and has tied his previous career-high with 38 tallies.

Skating with fellow rifleman Dany Heatley and set-up whiz Joe Thornton, Marleau benefits from the fact opposing defences can't afford to leave his linemates unattended.

"Playing with two high-profile guys helps," Marleau told the San Jose Mercury News.

"But getting that confidence right away and being able to keep it going has been a big help, too."

Not too many of Marleau's goals wind up on the weekly highlight shows, but as long as he's capitalizing on his chances, you won't hear the Sharks complaining.

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MARIAN GABORIK

Hockey fans wondered what would happened when Marian Gaborik escaped the confines of Minnesota's stifling defensive system.

Now you know.

Goals, goals, goals.

The slippery Slovak signed a lucrative free-agent pact with the New York Rangers in the off-season, leaving the Wild after eight injury-plagued seasons at Xcel Energy Center.

He's certainly excelling in the Big Apple.

Despite missing three games due to injuries, Gaborik is on pace to establish career-highs in goals and points. He has already potted a personal-best 13 powerplay markers.

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STEVEN STAMKOS

It's hard to believe this guy was a healthy scratch just over a year ago.

That he's suddenly scoring in bunches? Hockey insiders saw that coming.

The same season Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin battled for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year, Stamkos racked up 109 goals and 208 points in 72 games with the Midget AAA Markham (Ont.) Waxers.

Now in his sophomore season with the Bolts, who grabbed him first overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Stamkos isn't far behind Sid and Alex in the scoring race.

He's already scored 35 times and leads the league with 15 powerplay markers.

In January, he became just the sixth player in history to score 50 goals as a teenager -- joining Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Rick Nash and Trevor Linden and Jaromir Jagr in that elite club.


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