Art Ross trophy winner accomplished quite the feat when he became the first NHL player this season to score 50 goals.Alexander Ovechkin may make it look easy racing up and down the ice. But the reigning Rocket Richard and
Ovechkin's goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first period Thursday of the Washington Capitals' 5-2 victory in Tampa pushed Ovechkin to the magical mark.
Thursday marked the 185th time the 50-goal milestone has been passed. The legendary Maurice "Rocket" Richard was the first to do it when he scored 50 goals in 50 games during the 1943-44 season, and the mystique of 50 goals has held ever since.
Why is scoring 50 goals still considered an important benchmark when it's been done so many times?
"Because goals are down," said Scotty Bowman, the NHL's all-time victories leader among coaches. "The game has become pretty high-tech with all the information available. Coaching staffs are huge now, too. A friend of Ron Wilson, the Toronto Maple Leafs coach, visited him recently and was amazed to see all these coaches working at six computers in the room. We didn't have that 10 years ago.
"Now, to be sure, there are some games when it's easier to score than others, but most teams can match up well against a certain player and more teams match up than ever before. You can stop certain players. There aren't as many high-powered offensive lines as you used to see, as a result. You can gang up on some super scorers, but Ovechkin is such an individually strong player that it's pretty hard to stop him."
Ovechkin likely will be the only NHL player to reach 50 goals this season. The next closest player, New Jersey Devils left wing Zach Parise, has 41 goals with 12 games to play.
This is the third time in his four NHL seasons Ovechkin has passed the 50-goal mark. He had 52 goals and 54 assists for 106 points in 2005-06 when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie. He slipped to 46 goals the next season, but bounced back with 65 goals and 47 assists last season.
After Richard's 50-goal campaign, it would be another 16 seasons before the Rocket's feat was duplicated. His former Montreal Canadiens teammate, Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, scored his 50th goal in the 68th game of the 70-game 1960-61 season, but he had missed six games early in the season, so he scored his 50th goal in his 62nd game. Bobby Hull scored his 50th goal in the final (70th) game of the 1962 season and scored more than 50 goals in 1966, '67 and '69. Boston Bruins teammates Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk broke the barrier in 1971, when Esposito had 76 goals and Bucyk had 51.
Detroit Red Wings superstar Steve Yzerman broke the 50-goal mark in four-straight seasons, 1988-91, and again in 1993. He never did it again in his final 12 NHL seasons. That's because the game changed in many ways, he said.
"It's still a significant number and Ovechkin is a great scorer," Yzerman said. "It's tougher to score because the NHL became a more defensive-minded game in the 1990s. The rule changes have really opened it up over the past four years to make it more of a scorer's game. In the 1980s there were a lot of guys getting more points and the top players' ice time was similar to now. I know Alexander is averaging more than 20 minutes per game, but in the 1990s, forwards played less than 20 minutes a game.
"The fact that no other player will score 50 this season, most likely, shows that it's a difficult goal to achieve. There's no question that there are a lot of great players in the game today. But top players are now required to play an all-round game. They have to be better defensively. In turn, they are better players but not prolific goal scorers.
"For example, Pavel Datsyuk won't get 50 goals, but you would be hard-pressed to find a better player in the 1980s, 1990s or now."
Ovechkin leads all NHL forwards by averaging 22:55 of ice time per game, and his 64-second average shift duration is second only to Ilya Kovalchuk's 66 seconds.
Pierre Larouche scored 53 goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1976, his second NHL season, and 50 goals for the 1980 Canadiens. He had 48 goals for the New York Rangers in 1984, narrowly missing becoming the only player to score 50 goals for three different teams. He said the No. 1 factor in scoring 50 is having great linemates.
"We had a good team in Pittsburgh and I played on a great line with Syl Apps Jr. and either Jean Pronovost or Lowell MacDonald," Larouche said. "We had a lot of firepower and a great offensive defenseman in Ron Stackhouse. Our power play was awesome. In Montreal I centered Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt, great players and great people."
Larouche said power-play strategy greatly has improved and power plays are more frequent, so he's surprised there aren't more 50-goal scorers. Ovechkin ranks third with 16 power-play goals this season.
"You'd think that with more power plays, more goals would be scored, so it's hard for me to understand," Larouche said. "But Ovechkin doesn't seem bothered by anything. He's go-go-go. He loves to play, loves to shoot and puts the puck on net all the time. He has a great shot and great moves. Rocket Richard was very physical and Ovechkin is very physical. He hits and gets hit. It's pretty rare to play that way and score so many goals."
Richard's 50 goals in 50 games, goal-a-game pace would not be duplicated until Mike Bossy scored his 50th goal in the New York Islanders' 50th game in 1980-81. A year later, Wayne Gretzky scored his 50th goal of the season in the Edmonton Oilers' 39th game, en route to his League-record 92 goals. That was the season he set the all-time scoring record of 212 points.
Some think Cam Neely's 50 goals in 44 games in 1994, on one leg, is one of the greatest single-season performances of all time. Former 50-goal scorer Bobby Carpenter does, and compared Neely to Ovechkin.
"They are strong enough to drive through holes in a defense where players like Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri or Glenn Anderson had to find space to take their shots," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said players before 1990 had it a lot easier because checking lines were rare.
"We didn't have a big center to play against Mark Messier in the 1990 Stanley Cup Final so I was asked to shut him down," Carpenter said. "We did a good job of that, but the line with Martin Gelinas and Adam Graves killed us. I went back to Washington the next year, but the year after that New Jersey signed me and Jacques Lemaire told me to play that defensive role and it extended my career seven years."
But it almost killed off the 50-goal scorer. Of the 185 50-goal seasons, 76 did it in the 1980s.