Mike Bossy, known as ''The Sniper'' to National Hockey League goaltenders, is feeling younger and scoring faster this season. His record pace has even been enough to catapult him out of Wayne Gretzky's awesome shadow, temporarily at least.
The stellar right wing of the New York Islanders scored at least one goal in each of his first 10 games, and now with the season just about one-third over, he has 27 in 25. That's well ahead of the pace of his career-high 69 in 1978-79, the league record for a right wing, and even ahead of Gretzky at the moment.
Bossy scored 400 goals sooner than anyone else ever, reaching that rarefied level last year in only his seventh NHL season, and would be the dominant offensive figure of any previous era.
But Edmonton's Gretzky, the runaway scoring leader in each of the last four seasons, is proving to be hockey's predominant offensive force of all time.
''It's to the point I've accepted my plight,'' says Bossy. ''I have no control over what he does. I have to admit it's a little frustrating, but I've never lost sleep over it.
''Sure I'd love to win the scoring race - I've never tried to hide that desire - but team honors come first. I like to do well because it helps the team do well.''
Making matters all the more difficult to digest this time around, of course, is centerman Gretzky's leadership of an Edmonton team that last spring ended the Islanders' four-year reign as Stanley Cup champions.
Bossy does have two imposing NHL records, however, that he can keep away from Gretzky as long as he can continue adding to them.
By scoring 50 or more goals in each of the seven seasons he's been in the league so far, Mike has achieved the most 50-goal seasons of any player in history, and also the most consecutive 50-goal seasons.
For a while, it looked as though the string was in danger a year ago, but Bossy, who once scored 21 games in a youth hockey game, eventually reached the magic figure, ending up with 51 - his lowest total since he posted the same number in 1979-80.
''Last year it took me so long to get 50 I started pressing and trying too hard,'' he says. ''This year I'm more relaxed. The big difference is that I feel good about myself.''
Another difference was playing well in the international Canada Cup series just prior to the NHL season, during which Bossy scored the winning goal for Canada in overtime against the strong Soviet team.
''I was hot during that tournament and it carried right through,'' he says.
Bossy and Gretzky were teammates during the Canada Cup.
''There was no great love lost between us, but we got along fine,'' Bossy says. ''We didn't go out to dinner every night, but we got along.''
Bossy, who will be 28 next month, also emerged from the Canada Cup with a more youthful outlook on life.
''I felt a lot younger after that experience for some reason. I'm dressing younger. I'm wearing the clothes you see on 20-year-olds, and I don't feel out of place. I bought almost a whole new wardrobe when I got home, making a point of picking out things that were more casual and almost out of character for me. I'm more at ease, and I think that may be helping on the ice.''
There never has been anything casual about Bossy's searing shot. He's probably the best pure shooter in the game, and can score from almost any angle and position, airborne included.
Says his coach, Al Arbour, ''He can take what's available better than any goal scorer I've seen. He can score every way possible. If the opening is high on the far side and he's on his backhand, then he uses a backhand high on the far side.''
Teammate Bryan Trottier talks admiringly of Bossy's fearsome bullets fired from the right side as he races across the blue line. ''It's his wrist-snapper slapshot,'' says Trottier. ''It's patented, you know.''
Another of Bossy's patented assets is his accuracy. At last report, he was scoring on 28 percent of his shots versus Gretzky's 19 percent.
He can pick a ''5-hole'' - as the players call an opening between a goalie's legs - better than just about anyone else . . . even the redoubtable Gretzky, whose giant shadow obscures so much of what Bossy consistently accomplishes.