Gretzky on Stamkos' 50-in-50 chances

Only eight times in NHL history has a player scored 50 goals in 50 games, so Steven Stamkos is indeed chasing a rare form of hockey excellence.

The standard began with Maurice "Rocket" Richard in 1944-45 and only one player has done it three times, who else but Wayne Gretzky.

The Great One twice had 61 goals through 50 games, an all-time best, and also had 53 goals in 50 games. And you can bet he has noticed the 20 goals in 21 games Stamkos has put up so far this season.

"He's got tremendous speed and a quick release," Gretzky told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "He also understands the game, goes to the holes, gets into the right areas."

Gretzky, who scored an NHL-record 92 goals in 1981-82 and a second-best 87 goals in 1983-84, said he was impressed with the way Stamkos came back this season after his breakthrough sophomore season.

"He had a good season last year, but he didn't rest on his laurels from what he accomplished," Gretzky said. "It's obvious he worked real hard in the offseason to prepare himself to have an even better season than he had last year."

It's one thing to be talented, Gretzky said, but what separates elite players from good players in his mind is the work ethic. He mentioned top players such as Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Zetterberg.

"Obviously Stamkos is moving up into that category, but those players, they're not only talented, but they work hard every shift, every game, every night," Gretzky said.

Stamkos has many high-end tools, "but all that stuff doesn't matter if you don't work hard," Gretzky said. "And he works extremely hard and that's why he's successful."

It also helps when the guys on the left and right of you know what they're doing, he added. In Martin St. Louis and Steve Downie, Gretzky said Stamkos has found a great combination.

"The only way you can get 50 goals in 50 games is that you have to have real good linemates," Gretzky said. "It seems he's got a real nice fit with the guys he's playing with right now. They're playing off each other and playing real unselfishly. St. Louis seems to be playing as good as he's ever played, and that takes some pressure off a guy. Over 82 games, you're going to have some tough nights and you need your linemates to help you out."

Gretzky remembers the first time he was chasing 50 in 50 in 1981-82, when he did it in only 39 games (mercy!), and how the pressure mounted.

"For me, I remember being at the 37- or 38-goal plateau and thinking, 'The worst thing I can do now is fail and not get there,'" Gretzky said. "So it becomes the kind of pressure where you don't want to let yourself down and let people down who are watching and pulling for you. You put that inner pressure on yourself. It's still a little early for [Stamkos] right now. Once you get to 35 goals in 35-38 games, then you're on pace for that opportunity."

The hotter Stamkos stays, the more the media will ask him about his 50-in-50 chase. I asked Gretzky if that could add to the stress, but he disagreed.

"That's a fun part of the game," he said. "It's a lot better talking about that than going five games without a goal and people saying, 'When are you going to score your next goal?' It's a lot more fun when they're asking you if you can get 50 in 50."