The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Could Alex Ovechkin join the 50 in 50 club?

(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Even after everything went right for the Washington Capitals out of the timeout in the final minute of regulation Tuesday night — from Troy Brouwer’s faceoff victory to Nicklas Backstrom’s smooth pass out to the point to John Carlson’s cross feed through rough ice to put the puck at the top left circle — they needed one more component to tie the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Alex Ovechkin had raised his stick high in the air the moment he saw Carlson release the puck and upon its arrival, smacked a one-timer from 38 feet out past two Lightning defenseman and through a rapidly closing space under the right arm of goaltender Ben Bishop. Few players can make that type of powerful and well-placed shot. Even fewer can do it with the ease and consistency of Ovechkin, who after a four-goal outburst Tuesday night is humming along on pace for a career-best 72 goals this season.

“He’s shooting the puck the best I’ve ever seen him shoot it since we’ve been here,” said defenseman Mike Green, whose nine-year career has overlapped with Ovechkin’s completely. “He’s just got that knack. He understands when to shoot, it’s amazing how many shots he does get a game and, obviously, with the accuracy and poise he has with his shot — it’s incredible how he picks those corners. You have to admire that.”

Everything that makes Ovechkin such a prolific scorer has been on regular display this season: the force of his shot, his ability to place a slapper wherever he wants, the timing and instant release that makes them difficult for goaltenders counteract. If he continues to score at such a stunning rate, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could join one of the NHL’s most elite and revered clubs by scoring 50 goals in 50 games.

“Of course it would be nice to score that kind of goals in that kind of games, but I don’t know,” Ovechkin said Wednesday. “It’s pretty hard and it’s almost impossible to do it right now because the level hockey is so high, and you almost have to score every game or every two games to have that success.”

The NHL officially acknowledges the milestone as scoring 50 goals in a team’s first 50 games of the season, which has happened a total of eight times in NHL history. Many view a player scoring 50 goals in their first 50 games, which has occurred five additional times, just as impressive.

Players who scored 50 goals in a team’s first 50 games of a season

Season Player Team How many games
1944-45 Maurice Richard Montreal Canadiens 50 in 50
1980-81 Mike Bossy, New York Islanders 50 in 50
1981-82 Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers 50 in 39
1983-84 Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers 50 in 42
1984-85 Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers 50 in 49
1988-89 Mario Lemieux Pittsburgh Penguins 50 in 46
1990-91 Brett Hull St. Louis Blues 50 in 49
1991-92 Brett Hull St. Louis Blues 50 in 50

Players who scored 50 goals in their first 50 games of a season

Season Player Team How many games individually (team games)
1984-85 Jari Kurri Edmonton Oilers 50 in 50 (53)
1992-93 Alexander Mogilny Buffalo Sabres 50 in 46 (53)
1992-93 Mario Lemieux Pittsburgh Penguins 50 in 48 (72)
1993-94 Cam Neely Boston Bruins 50 in 44 (66)
1995-96 Mario Lemieux Pittsburgh Penguins 50 in 50 (59)

Capitals Coach Adam Oates was teammates with the last player to accomplish the official achievement. Oates played alongside Brett Hull in St. Louis when he recorded the official 50 in 50 in 1990-91 and 1991-92. Then in 1993-94, Oates was in Boston when Cam Neely, despite being limited by significant knee injuries, recorded 50 goals in his first 44 games — but it was the Bruins’ 66th contest of the year.

Can Ovechkin find a way to join that elite company?

“I think he has the capability of doing it, with the guys he plays with, the minutes and the [power play],” Oates said, acknowledging that today’s NHL doesn’t lead to as significant offensive production as it did during his career. “I think it’s harder now, no question.”

Ovechkin missed two games earlier this season with an injured right shoulder, but has 26 goals in the 29 games he’s appeared in. That puts him on pace for 45 goals in his first 50 games, but as Ovechkin reminded the entire NHL Tuesday night, he’s capable of multi-goal showings.

Washington’s 50th game of the season comes Jan. 21 at home against Ottawa, while Ovechkin’s 50th — assuming he would not miss any more games between now and then — is Jan. 25 at Montreal.

Will it be challenging? Certainly, considering Ovechkin would need to score 24 goals over the next 21 games to accomplish even the unofficial version of a 50 in 50. But the Capitals captain appears to be taking the change to right wing that reinvigorated his game last year to new levels this season. He’s scoring from different areas of the ice regularly and playing off his linemates to generate more quality chances of all types on a nightly basis. He’s also boasting a career-high shooting percentage of 16.7 through these first two months.

As much as it would mean to hit the milestone, Ovechkin’s focus these days remains helping the Capitals win by doing what he does best — scoring goals.

“I don’t know how many games I’m going to score,” Ovechkin said. “I just think we’ll see what’s going to happen. My job is to score goals, and every opportunity I’m going to have, I’m going to try to put it in the net.”