When it comes to defense and goaltending, four Southeast teams rank in the NHL's bottom 10. (Gerry Broome/AP)
By Allan Muir
Ask any coach and he'll tell you it's not how you score that matters, but how many. It's a pragmatic approach for a sport that judges a winner based on a simple tally rather than the awarding of style points.
But does it also matter who you score against?
That's the argument being posed this morning on Twitter by some fans and media members who are wondering whether the value of Alex Ovechkin's stats have to be measured with an eye on the pillowy soft competition he faces in the Southeast Division.
It's probably a good talking point, but does it really diminish his run for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's top goal scorer, or undercut his bid for the Hart Trophy?
Let's be honest: sports is all about the taking advantage of players and teams that are less talented. Great athletes have always fattened their stats at the expense of weak sisters. And ultimately you have to play whoever the schedule-maker tells you to play, which makes it tough to judge a man's stats by his competition.
But let's take a look at a couple of key categories, just for grins.
Ovechkin has scored 56 percent (14 of 25) of his goals against Southeast teams, the Capitals' opponents in 38 percent of his games (15 of 39).
Steven Stamkos, who shares the Richard lead with Ovechkin, has played 37 percent of his games (14 of 38) against the Southeast, but has scored just 33 percent (8 of 25) of his goals in them.
What about playoff opponents? Against the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference as of this morning, Ovechkin has four goals (21 percent), while Stamkos has 11 (44 percent).
John Tavares of the Islanders is just off the pace with 23 goals. He doesn't skate as often against the Southeast teams, but he probably wishes he did. He's clicking in 82 percent of his games against them (9 of 11), while eight of his 23 tallies (35 percent) have come against playoff teams.
That's just a couple of very basic comparisons. There are dozens of ways to break this down further, but the question remains: Does it matter? Definitely not for the Richard -- which remains a "how many" trophy -- but the numbers could weigh against Ovechkin when it comes time to award the Hart. Of course, that assumes most voters will break down the numbers before filling out a ballot, and that ranks as a long shot.
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This is still a sport where, right or wrong, the majority accepts numbers at face value and a strong kick at the finish can erase the memory of a slow start. If Ovechkin maintains something close to this pace and the Caps secure a playoff berth, it's a good bet that "how many" will still outweigh "against whom."