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Shooting for 60 Goals
March 24, 2008
Being the first to hit that scoring milestone since 1996 would place Alexander Ovechkin in the company of greats. Would it also be a sign of an offensive renaissance in the NHL?
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March 24, 2008

Shooting For 60 Goals

Being the first to hit that scoring milestone since 1996 would place Alexander Ovechkin in the company of greats. Would it also be a sign of an offensive renaissance in the NHL?

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ALEXANDER OVECHKIN rifled the puck between the pads of Calgary Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, skated toward the boards, threw open his arms, shimmied and offered a share-my-ecstasy embrace to his Capitals teammates. This was sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, a snow day and Christmas morning wrapped into one. The goal was critical—his 56th and league-best 10th game-winner gave Washington a 3--2 win on March 12 to keep its playoff dreams alive—but then every goal seems to tap a wellspring of pleasure in Ovechkin. Does anybody enjoy anything more than Ovechkin enjoys scoring goals?

"You can't watch that kid and not like hockey," Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock says. "He's so pumped up."

"If there was ever an athlete who you'd pay to see no matter what his team did, he'd be the guy," Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock says. "I'd watch him in the warmup. He transcends. I think he's the evolution of our game—a young, reckless, skilled player."

Ovechkin had 57 goals with nine games remaining through Sunday, making him a near certainty to become the first player in 12 years, since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, to reach 60—a lofty level that once was almost commonplace. For a 21-year period beginning with the 1973--74 season, at least one player scored 60 or more goals in every season except '79--80. Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy each hit or surpassed the mark five times (box, above). Since Phil Esposito crashed through the barrier 37 years ago by scoring 76, notching 60 has been done 37 times by 17 players.

Ovechkin's assault on 60 has implications beyond its statistical weight (which, as a matter of comparison, is slightly heavier than a baseball player's run at 50 home runs before the Steroid Era.) The quest is enthralling, driving hockey fans to websites with the same anticipation that an earlier generation enjoyed scanning the scoring summaries in search of Gretzky's goals. "To go from a number of guys getting 60 goals to a time when it became a boring defensive game to where we finally have a guy hopefully breaking through to get 60—the game really needs it," Capitals goaltender Olaf Kolzig says. "This is huge."

But while there is universal admiration in hockey circles for Ovechkin—he wears out superlatives as readily as goalies—his singular scoring ability is also regarded with a mix of awe and suspicion, just as Main Street U.S.A. views the megastore about to open around the corner. There is some question as to whether Ovechkin, who had an eight-goal lead over the Atlanta Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk, is a beacon that signals the end of the Dead Puck Era or is simply a blip, a one-off or, as Atlanta right wing Mark Recchi called him last week, "a freak."

ON THE eve of the 2005--06 season, with tweaks to the rules designed to release the speed and skill of players penned in by the hook-and-hold rodeo years, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED asked Calgary star Jarome Iginla to predict how many goals and points would lead the league. The game was rife with the possibility for offense. Restraining fouls were being called in the exhibition season, which meant more power plays and more open ice. The area where goalies could handle a puck had been limited, which encouraged forechecking. The red line was out, and the two-line pass was in. The reconfigured surface added two feet to each attacking zone.

Iginla's response: 63 goals and 135 points.

Nearly three seasons later only Ovechkin has approached Iginla's goal projection. (He is also nearing the single-season record of 63 goals for a left wing, set by the Kings' Luc Robitaille in 1992--93.) After the league average spiked by a full goal to 6.1 goals per game in 2005--06—five players scored at least 50 that season, led by the Sharks' Jonathan Cheechoo, with 56—the number of goals has slid steadily to 5.5 per game this season, about two goals fewer than when Recchi broke into the NHL almost 20 years ago.

Those goals-per-game numbers would suggest that the rule changes have utterly failed. In truth, the statistic is a lie, maybe even a damnable one. The crackdown on obstruction has indeed opened up a game that was nearly paralyzed by the curse of overexpansion and the influence of the New Jersey Devils' neutral-zone trap. The rodeo is dead, but the corollary that goals would inevitably follow the loosening up of the game was a faulty assumption. Says Brendan Shanahan, the New York Rangers winger who chaired a summit that led to many of the rule changes, "[The game] is still all about tactics. The new rules were not designed to give people empty nets."

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