UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The day was April 7, 2012, the game was in Winnipeg, and the feat was so stunning that even the rival fan base gave it a standing ovation. In the third period of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s last game of the season, a 22-year-old Steven Stamkos scored his 60th goal of the season, and teammate Teddy Purcell immediately snagged the puck as a keepsake. It’s the last time the milestone has been reached.
“If anyone’s going to do it again, it’ll most likely be Ovi,” Stamkos said recently.
Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin scored his 45th goal of this season in a 3-1 win against the New York Islanders on Friday night, making him the only player in NHL history with 10 campaigns of at least 45 goals. Fifty has long been the bar for him, and with 17 games to go, he almost certainly will hit that for the eighth time in his career. A 60-goal season is within reach, too; his rate of 0.70 goals per game this season would have to increase to 0.88 down the stretch — not easy but not impossible.
Ovechkin has eclipsed 60 goals once in his career, during the 2007-08 season when he scored 65 and finished with 112 points. That had been the first 60-goal year since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in 1995-96. Six games ago, when Ovechkin scored his 41st and 42nd goals of the season in Los Angeles, he was asked whether he had started to think about 60 as a possibility for this season.
“No,” he replied curtly.
Yet during his current eight-game point streak, he has scored seven goals — the same rate he must maintain to reach 60. He’s understandably more concerned with getting ready for what the Capitals hope will be another long playoff run than maintaining that 0.88 average for 17 more games, but if Ovechkin has proved anything in his career, it’s that there seemingly are no limits to what he can do. He’s poised to become just the fourth player age 33 or older to score at least 50 goals in a season, and the last time that happened was Jagr in 2005-06, Ovechkin’s rookie year.
Over the past 10 games, five of his eight goals have come on the power play, which has become a threat again after a midseason slump. The left faceoff circle is his “office,” where he often slams in one-timers, especially on a man advantage. Though Ovechkin and Stamkos play different positions and possess different styles, they have that spot on the ice in common.
“They’re very similar in terms of guys being able to hit pucks from that area when they’re coming fast,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. “It’s a special talent for sure.”
Connolly was a rookie for the Lightning the year Stamkos scored 60, and with Tampa Bay out of the playoff picture that season, players could focus on individual goals down the stretch perhaps more than they otherwise would. Stamkos got hot after Christmas, scoring 40 goals over the last 48 games. He tallied his 50th goal in his 69th game, and it took 10 goals in the final nine games to reach that rare marker.
Seven years later, Stamkos said he would trade that feat for more team success, but “it was obviously something that was as close to a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing that you’re going to get,” he said.
If there was a year to score 60 again, this would seemingly be it. Teams are averaging 3.05 goals, a considerable bump from 2.97 goals per game last season and the first time the NHL average has eclipsed 3.00 since 2005-06. That’s a credit to the league’s youth — the infusion of skill and speed and a lack of defensive awareness combining for more wide-open games.
Bigger and better goaltenders along with more sophisticated scouting led to the gradual decline of scoring for most of Ovechkin’s 14-year career, but what separated him then and still does now — when he doesn’t have the wheels of some of his younger peers — is a unique shot that’s both fast and tough to track with how it knuckles.
Ovechkin has converted 17.3 percent of his shots into goals this season, a career best. Though the bulk of his goals are the product of his powerful shot, he has shown more willingness to score the hard way in recent seasons, posting up in front of the net where there tends to be less space. Against the Islanders on Friday night, he skated up to the net and then batted in a rebound out of the air.
“That’s the thing that I’ve probably been most surprised about in my five years here coaching the player,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “He continues to find different ways to find the back of the net.”
Ovechkin said after the game that he wasn’t aware that tally made him the only player with 10 45-goal seasons until teammates told him. He acknowledged it was special, but he largely shrugged it off, long accustomed to making some new bit of history each time he scores. Maybe he’s not thinking about a 60-goal campaign yet, but the closer he gets, the more others will.
“I mean, you’ve seen the prowess to score that he still has,” Stamkos said. “But 60 goals, you never in your wildest dreams think you’re going to get that.”