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?
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
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
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,
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
response: 63 goals and 135 points.
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.
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."