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He's Gotta Have Hart

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Phil Esposito was the first player in NHL history to score 60 or more goals in a season. In 1970-71 Esposito netted an astounding 76 goals to obliterate Bobby Hull’s previous single-season NHL mark of 58.

No player since has bested the previous mark by a greater number or a higher percentage. And Esposito went on to score 60 or more goals four times before any other NHL player managed to do it even once.

Esposito won five Art Ross Trophies – including four in succession – as the league’s leading scorer. He won the Lester B. Pearson Award twice and the Hart Trophy twice.

So Phil Esposito knows what he is talking about when it comes to goals and trophies.

“To me,” says Esposito, “even if the Washington Capitals don’t make the playoffs, [Caps left winger Alex] Ovechkin’s the MVP in my mind.”

The Hart Trophy is awarded annually to the league’s MVP.

Esposito’s qualifier is important, because there are those who believe Ovechkin cannot or should not be the MVP if the Caps don’t make the playoffs. In their mind, Ovechkin could be the Hart Trophy winner on Saturday when he takes off his skates after Washington’s final regular season game, but they’d vote for someone else if the Caps got bumped out of the playoffs the following day.

The voting members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association vote for the Hart Trophy, and they take the responsibility seriously. Ovechkin is a strong candidate for the award this season, but he is not the only one. Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, Calgary’s Jarome Iginla, San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov and New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur are a few of the other viable candidates around the league.

Ovechkin leads the NHL with (through games of March 29):

  • 430 shots on goal
  • 109 points
  • 73 even-strength points
  • 62 goals
  • 41 even-strength goals
  • 40 late-game pressure points*
  • 30 lead-changing goals
  • 26 late-game pressure goals*
  • 26 points in March
  • 25 third-period goals
  • 21 power play goals
  • 20 go-ahead goals (tied)
  • 17 first-period goals
  • 14.2 shots on goal per 60 minutes
  • 12 multiple-goal games (tied)
  • 10 game-winning goals (tied)
  • 7 late-game pressure game-winning goals*
  • 5 game-winning goals scored in the third period (tied)
  • 3 hat tricks (tied)
  • 2.03 goals per 60 minutes
  • 2 four-goal games

* “late-game pressure” is defined as the third period or overtime of games when the score differential is two or fewer goals

The players themselves vote for the Lester B. Pearson Award; it is awarded annually to the league’s “most outstanding player.” It’s a little different from “most valuable player,” but the Pearson means more to most players because the honor comes from their peers. The Hart Trophy is arguable more prestigious; it was first awarded in 1923. Esposito won the first Pearson Award in 1971.

Those who claim Ovechkin can’t be the league’s MVP if the Caps don’t make the playoffs might not have seen much of the ebullient winger’s exploits lately.

Ovechkin scored 14 goals and totaled 26 points in the month of March. Both totals represent single-month personal bests for him. He notched at least a point in 11 of Washington’s 14 March games and was plus-17 for the month. The Capitals were 10-4 during the month, with four of the wins coming by a single goal.

With the Caps trailing 3-1 after two periods in Atlanta on March 21, Ovechkin led his teammates to a thrilling third-period comeback with a goal and two assists in the final frame. Losing that game alone would have the Caps on the verge of playing out the string with two games remaining, rather than having a chance for their first playoff berth in five years.

“If there was ever a case for anybody saying, ‘Who is the MVP of the league?” I’ve got to believe he said it on the ice tonight,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau after the game that night. “I thought in the third period [he] said, ‘Just get on my back and we’re going to go.’ I thought he was phenomenal in the third period.”

That night in Atlanta, Ovechkin became the first player in a dozen years to score 60 goals in a season. That’s easily the league’s longest drought between 60-goal campaigns. Esposito, now the radio analyst for the Tampa Bay Lightning, doesn’t hesitate when asked why the drought was so long.

“Guys don’t shoot,” he says in his emphatic and inimitable style. “Guys don’t shoot at the net. Guys are always looking to pass it and screw around with it and everything else. Alex doesn’t. He gets an opportunity, he sees it, he’s going to shoot. And that’s it. And that’s why he is going to score, and he is going to continue to score.”

With three games left in the season, Ovechkin has 430 shots on goal. That’s the second most in a season in NHL history, second only to Esposito’s 550 in 1970-71, the season he scored 76. Esposito’s single-season shots on goal standard has yet to be approached, and many believe it’s a record that won’t be broken for a long time.

Not Esposito.

“Absolutely,” he declares, when asked if Ovechkin can break his shots on goal record. “Alex is going to get 550 and when he does, he is going to score 85 or 90 goals. They say Gretzky’s [goal] record is not going to be broken. Well, when I got 76, they said ‘Nobody will get 77.’ Records are made to be broken.  And Ovie shoots enough that he is going to do that. I love guys that shoot the puck. Why these guys pass all the time is beyond me.”

Esposito played 18 seasons in the NHL, and he can’t remember playing with or against a player that reminds him of Ovechkin.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy as physical as he is that scores like he does,” says Esposito. “And that will slow up, too, because you can’t continue to do that. You can do that once in a while, but you’ve got to keep scoring. That’s what he is there for. That’s what his job is. Put the puck in the net. Sure, you can take a bodycheck, hit a body, give a bodycheck, but don’t go looking for it. Early on he was looking for it; he’s not looking for it as much anymore. I saw that tonight. He’s playing smarter, he’s getting smarter, he’s getting better and better and better.”

He’s 22, and he’s getting better. That’s a frightening thought for goaltenders of 29 teams around the league. Even though there’s still plenty of upside to Ovechkin’s career, right now he is plenty good enough to be the 2008 Hart Trophy recipient. Playoffs, or no playoffs.


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