Coaches needed a
season to figure out the vagaries of the new game, to learn to collapse
defenders in front of the goalie because of the extra space in the zone, to set
the trap deeper because of the removal of the red line. There is, of course,
another reason for the continuing dearth of goals: improved goaltending.
As the last
position to evolve in the modern NHL, goaltending was still playing catch-up
even into the 1980s and '90s. While Gretzky and Lemieux and even Dennis Maruk,
the only Capitals player to net 60, were scoring fools, goalies generally were
fending for themselves—undercoached, underconditioned and often underwhelming.
"Twenty or 30 years ago a guy might not have had a goalie coach his whole
career," Kolzig says. "Now you see guys coming into the league who have
had their own coaches since they were 13 or 14."
"If you have
a good goalie now, you're screwed," Hitchcock says. "You need a great
goaltender. I'm watching [ Tampa Bay's Martin] St. Louis's goal against us the
other night—I mean, that was a rocket [from near the left wing circle]—and I'm
going, 'What the heck is wrong with [ Columbus goalie Pascal Leclaire]?' Five
years ago everyone would have said, 'What a great shot. Unbelievable.' And I'm
in there looking at the tape and bitching at the goalie coach."
The reduction in
the width of goalie pads from 12 to 11 inches, the one change that was designed
specifically to inflate goal totals, has been ineffective. The lingering
complaint from skaters is that goalies, armored in still-too-big gear, leave no
net at which to shoot. "I hate to say it because it sounds like sour
grapes," says Iginla, whose 45 goals were third in the NHL through Sunday,
"but for sure we still have less room."
So with scoring
down and snipers frustrated with a pendulum that seems stuck on the goalie's
side, why is Ovechkin scoring at a rate that, given the context of his era,
ranks with the most prolific in history? (You could argue that 60 goals today
are what 85 were a quarter century ago, when the goals-per-game average was
more than 40% higher than this season's.) Ovechkin ruminated on the question
last Thursday in the Capitals' dressing room, flashed his jack-o'-lantern grin
and said, "Lucky."
NOW BESIDES Mach
3 speed, a hammer of Thor shot, a long reach and nifty moves—don't forget the
moves—one of Ovechkin's perceived advantages over other gifted scorers such as
Iginla is location. While logic suggests that Ovechkin can pad his stats by
joysticking through the tissue-soft Southeast Division, he hasn't. In 25
intradivisional matches Ovechkin was averaging .600 goals a game as opposed to
his .875 average against the rest of the league. (He also scores at an .875
clip against Western Conference teams, which generally have better top-pair
defensemen.) Like that megastore near Main Street, a key to Ovechkin's success
is volume. After leading the NHL in shots on goal his first two seasons, while
scoring 98, he had taken 395 shots in 73 games this season—79 more than the No.
2 shooter, Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg, who had only 36 goals. The shooting
fests are not self-aggrandizing; they're testament to his ability to create his
own space. Ovechkin also passes smartly and uses teammates more effectively
than he once did, largely because slick rookie center Nicklas Backstrom gives
him a credible alternative. Still, Ovechkin is not shy about teeing it up: He
had double-digit shots against Pittsburgh and Calgary this month.
Brian Burke says he's hopeful that Ovechkin's season heralds the return of
high-octane offense, "but I'm afraid he's a once in a lifetime, a [Rocket]
Richard-- or Bossy-type guy who has the combination of explosive speed and huge
power. He also reminds me of [two-time 60-goal scorer] Pavel Bure when he first
came over from Russia—that exuberance, that desire to score."
The game is a
blur when you're doing 60, on an open road.