Strictly on the strength of his spectacular goal total, Hull may be the NHL's most valuable player this year. Since the Blues' next-highest goal scorer is Geoff Courtnall, with 17, there is little distinction between stopping Hull and beating St. Louis. Third-place Detroit, which is headed for a first-round Norris Division playoff series against the second-place Blues, hasn't figured out how to stop Hull. On Friday, both of the defensemen whom coach Bryan Murray normally plays against Hull—Steve Chiasson and Brad McCrimmon—were out with injuries.
And before that game Murray even questioned whether shadowing Hull with a forward would work. "The way he rolls off checks, uses picks and gets to the hole, he's still going to get his shots," Murray said. "I think it would break down your coverage of the other people." Sutter uses Hull so much, and with so many different players, that an opposition coach trying to match Hull defensively would fail to give his own scorers enough ice time. Even if a coach was willing to make that sacrifice in an attempt to win 2-1, he might wind up losing 2-1. Probably on a goal by Hull.
"You can't check me because I never have the puck," Hull says. Hull will fade a step backward to rid himself of a check or quickly accelerate to create a hole. When the puck arrives, he utilizes the quickest release in the game to put it on goal. If the puck hits the goalie, percentages dictate that the next time, or the time after that, it will not.
Hull suffered a sprain of the left ankle in game 46, a 7-3 victory over Washington on Jan. 15. Two nights later he wobbled through two scoreless periods of a 4-2 loss to Montreal before showering early. Though he was the leading vote-getter in the All-Star balloting, he limited his participation in the All-Star Game on Jan. 19 to an introduction and a wave from the Chicago Stadium bench. Restored to about 85% of his usual self by four days of rest, ultrasound treatment and ice, he snapped in two goals in Minnesota during the second period of game 48 on Jan. 22. He joined the 50-50 club in game 49, then bagged two more goals against the Red Wings on Saturday in game 50 before re-injuring his ankle late in the first period.
A healthy respect for the possibility of embarrassment, something that motivates many superior performers, now wakes Hull every morning like an alarm clock. Increasingly he understands the obligations that come with his talent. "Being with those four names is something to be proud of," he said after scoring his 50th goal. "They all made a name in history. I have a lot of time ahead of me. Maybe I can, too."