As subplots go, this one has all the trimmings.
With a goal and two assists Thursday in Tampa Bay's 4-3 loss at Winnipeg, and with six goals and nine points over his past four games, Lightning center Steven Stamkos has moved into a tie with Penguins center Evgeni Malkin atop the NHL scoring race.
Each has 73 points, although Stamkos would take the goals tiebreaker. He leads the NHL with 43, 10 more than Malkin, who ranks second.
The two meet today at Consol Energy Center.
While that's a key attraction, Stamkos backpedaled when the topic of the head-to-head matchup was brought up Friday after the Lightning arrived in town.
"That's the story. It's going to be that way regardless of what I think," Stamkos said, smiling.
"I don't think about it that way. I don't think anybody on our team or our coaching staff [does]."
- Matchup: Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 1:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
- TV, radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Dwayne Roloson for Lightning.
- Penguins: Are 11-5-1 vs. Southeast Division, including 2-1 vs. Tampa Bay. ... Are 5-3 in day games, all since Dec. 31. ... Jordan Staal ranked third in NHL in shooting percent, 22.1, before games Friday.
- Lightning: Are 5-8-1 vs. Atlantic Division. ... Its 9-18-4 road record among worst in NHL. ... Team 3.25 goals-against average worst in league.
- Hidden stat: Going into Friday, Penguins had best home penalty-killing (90.4 percent); Lightning was next-to-last in road power play (10.5 percent).
Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher backed him up.
"The last thing I want to make it is one man against one man," Boucher said.
Malkin declined an interview request, but Penguins coach Dan Bylsma sided with the Lightning in downplaying the matchup.
"I don't think really at this point in time, with 22 games left for us, that we're looking at it as a showdown game or head-to-head game between two guys with high numbers," Bylsma said.
"We know the kind of run [Stamkos] has been on right now, how many goals he's been putting up and where he's been scoring them. I'm sure they're going to be well aware of Evgeni Malkin as well. We've played them twice in the recent month or so, and [Malkin] has had some spectacular games against them. I know they're going to be aware of that as well.
"It's certainly going to be key in the game, but just the head-to-head matchup, I don't think it's like that."
In their head-to-head games this season, Malkin has outdone Stamkos.
Malkin was held without a point in a 4-1 Penguins loss Nov. 17 in Tampa, Fla., then had five goals, seven points in the two more recent meetings, both wins. Stamkos had an assist in each of the first two games and no points in the Lightning's 4-2 loss Feb. 12 at Consol Energy Center.
Stamkos turned 22 earlier this month and is in his fourth NHL season. In 2009-10, he shared the Rocket Richard Trophy for the goal-scoring championship with Penguins center Sidney Crosby (51) and is on pace to top that.
"He's been showing up in all the big moments in basically every game," Boucher said. "Every player can take it to another level, especially a youngster, but I think right now he's taken to the highest level I would have imagined this year."
Malkin, 25, is in his sixth NHL season and won the Art Ross Trophy for the NHL scoring championship with 113 points as well as the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2008-09, when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.
"He's a great player," Stamkos said. "He's a pretty rare combination of size and skill. To see what he's done in Pittsburgh without Crosby -- how he's stepped up ... and you saw what he did when they won the Cup. He was MVP. He's a great player, one of the best players in the world. It's going to be tough for us to contain him."
Just as Malkin is shining in the absence of the injured Crosby, Stamkos is thriving despite the loss of center Vinny Lecavalier (broken hand). Of course, Crosby has been out most of the past 14 months, while Lecavalier has missed two games.
"Right now, with Vinny's injury ... he's gotten a lot of ice time," Boucher said of Stamkos. "He has to do it all. I think it's good for him."
A day before Tampa Bay's most recent visit to Consol Energy Center -- a 4-2 Penguins win 13 days ago fueled by Malkin's two goals -- Boucher raved about Malkin, comparing his moves this season to those used in years past by Penguins Hall of Famer and franchise owner Mario Lemieux. That was well received by Penguins faithful, but Boucher cracked, "I wasn't happy to see [Malkin demonstrate] it after I said it."
Bylsma was asked, given Boucher's flattering description of Malkin, if he wanted to reciprocate with Stamkos. He offered a fitting touche.
"Steven Stamkos is a dangerous sniper," Bylsma said. "He's a player that, when he is over the blue line, [whether it's the] power play, five-on-five, you're acutely aware that he's dangerous with anything that comes near him.
"I know that right now, in terms of snipers. He's probably in a league by himself."
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.