ALEXANDEROVECHKIN rifled the puck between the pads of Calgary Flames goalie MiikkaKiprusoff, skated toward the boards, threw open his arms, shimmied and offereda share-my-ecstasy embrace to his Capitals teammates. This was sunshine,lollipops and rainbows, a snow day and Christmas morning wrapped into one. Thegoal was critical—his 56th and league-best 10th game-winner gave Washington a3--2 win on March 12 to keep its playoff dreams alive—but then every goal seemsto tap a wellspring of pleasure in Ovechkin. Does anybody enjoy anything morethan Ovechkin enjoys scoring goals?
This is an article from the March 24, 2008 issue
"You can'twatch that kid and not like hockey," Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcocksays. "He's so pumped up."
"If there wasever an athlete who you'd pay to see no matter what his team did, he'd be theguy," Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock says. "I'd watch him inthe warmup. He transcends. I think he's the evolution of our game—a young,reckless, skilled player."
Ovechkin had 57goals with nine games remaining through Sunday, making him a near certainty tobecome the first player in 12 years, since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, toreach 60—a lofty level that once was almost commonplace. For a 21-year periodbeginning with the 1973--74 season, at least one player scored 60 or more goalsin every season except '79--80. Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy each hit orsurpassed the mark five times (box, above). Since Phil Esposito crashed throughthe barrier 37 years ago by scoring 76, notching 60 has been done 37 times by17 players.
Ovechkin'sassault on 60 has implications beyond its statistical weight (which, as amatter of comparison, is slightly heavier than a baseball player's run at 50home runs before the Steroid Era.) The quest is enthralling, driving hockeyfans to websites with the same anticipation that an earlier generation enjoyedscanning the scoring summaries in search of Gretzky's goals. "To go from anumber of guys getting 60 goals to a time when it became a boring defensivegame to where we finally have a guy hopefully breaking through to get 60—thegame really needs it," Capitals goaltender Olaf Kolzig says. "This ishuge."
But while thereis universal admiration in hockey circles for Ovechkin—he wears outsuperlatives as readily as goalies—his singular scoring ability is alsoregarded with a mix of awe and suspicion, just as Main Street U.S.A. views themegastore about to open around the corner. There is some question as to whetherOvechkin, who had an eight-goal lead over the Atlanta Thrashers' IlyaKovalchuk, is a beacon that signals the end of the Dead Puck Era or is simply ablip, a one-off or, as Atlanta right wing Mark Recchi called him last week,"a freak."
ON THE eve of the2005--06 season, with tweaks to the rules designed to release the speed andskill of players penned in by the hook-and-hold rodeo years, SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDasked Calgary star Jarome Iginla to predict how many goals and points wouldlead the league. The game was rife with the possibility for offense.Restraining fouls were being called in the exhibition season, which meant morepower plays and more open ice. The area where goalies could handle a puck hadbeen limited, which encouraged forechecking. The red line was out, and thetwo-line pass was in. The reconfigured surface added two feet to each attackingzone.
Iginla'sresponse: 63 goals and 135 points.
Nearly threeseasons later only Ovechkin has approached Iginla's goal projection. (He isalso nearing the single-season record of 63 goals for a left wing, set by theKings' Luc Robitaille in 1992--93.) After the league average spiked by a fullgoal to 6.1 goals per game in 2005--06—five players scored at least 50 thatseason, led by the Sharks' Jonathan Cheechoo, with 56—the number of goals hasslid steadily to 5.5 per game this season, about two goals fewer than whenRecchi broke into the NHL almost 20 years ago.
Thosegoals-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 onobstruction has indeed opened up a game that was nearly paralyzed by the curseof overexpansion and the influence of the New Jersey Devils' neutral-zone trap.The rodeo is dead, but the corollary that goals would inevitably follow theloosening up of the game was a faulty assumption. Says Brendan Shanahan, theNew York Rangers winger who chaired a summit that led to many of the rulechanges, "[The game] is still all about tactics. The new rules were notdesigned to give people empty nets."
Coaches needed aseason to figure out the vagaries of the new game, to learn to collapsedefenders in front of the goalie because of the extra space in the zone, to setthe 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 lastposition to evolve in the modern NHL, goaltending was still playing catch-upeven 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 werefending for themselves—undercoached, underconditioned and often underwhelming."Twenty or 30 years ago a guy might not have had a goalie coach his wholecareer," Kolzig says. "Now you see guys coming into the league who havehad their own coaches since they were 13 or 14."
"If you havea good goalie now, you're screwed," Hitchcock says. "You need a greatgoaltender. I'm watching [Tampa Bay's Martin] St. Louis's goal against us theother night—I mean, that was a rocket [from near the left wing circle]—and I'mgoing, 'What the heck is wrong with [Columbus goalie Pascal Leclaire]?' Fiveyears ago everyone would have said, 'What a great shot. Unbelievable.' And I'min there looking at the tape and bitching at the goalie coach."
The reduction inthe width of goalie pads from 12 to 11 inches, the one change that was designedspecifically to inflate goal totals, has been ineffective. The lingeringcomplaint from skaters is that goalies, armored in still-too-big gear, leave nonet at which to shoot. "I hate to say it because it sounds like sourgrapes," says Iginla, whose 45 goals were third in the NHL through Sunday,"but for sure we still have less room."
So with scoringdown and snipers frustrated with a pendulum that seems stuck on the goalie'sside, 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 todayare what 85 were a quarter century ago, when the goals-per-game average wasmore than 40% higher than this season's.) Ovechkin ruminated on the questionlast Thursday in the Capitals' dressing room, flashed his jack-o'-lantern grinand said, "Lucky."
NOW BESIDES Mach3 speed, a hammer of Thor shot, a long reach and nifty moves—don't forget themoves—one of Ovechkin's perceived advantages over other gifted scorers such asIginla is location. While logic suggests that Ovechkin can pad his stats byjoysticking through the tissue-soft Southeast Division, he hasn't. In 25intradivisional matches Ovechkin was averaging .600 goals a game as opposed tohis .875 average against the rest of the league. (He also scores at an .875clip against Western Conference teams, which generally have better top-pairdefensemen.) Like that megastore near Main Street, a key to Ovechkin's successis volume. After leading the NHL in shots on goal his first two seasons, whilescoring 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 shootingfests are not self-aggrandizing; they're testament to his ability to create hisown space. Ovechkin also passes smartly and uses teammates more effectivelythan he once did, largely because slick rookie center Nicklas Backstrom giveshim a credible alternative. Still, Ovechkin is not shy about teeing it up: Hehad double-digit shots against Pittsburgh and Calgary this month.
Anaheim G.M.Brian Burke says he's hopeful that Ovechkin's season heralds the return ofhigh-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 hugepower. He also reminds me of [two-time 60-goal scorer] Pavel Bure when he firstcame over from Russia—that exuberance, that desire to score."
The game is ablur when you're doing 60, on an open road.
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