The Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy is often considered the exclusive property of Alexander Ovechkin (for good reason), but this season is shaping up to be a competitive race for the league’s goal-scoring title.
Ovechkin has won the award eight times in his career, including six of the past seven seasons.
There’s a new target for Ovechkin to beat, however. Steven Stamkos is the last NHL player to eclipse the 60-goal mark and no one has come close to that territory since the Tampa Bay Lightning sniper did so during the 2011-12 season. This year, Ovechkin, along with Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews and Boston Bruins sniper David Pastrnak, are on pace to be within striking distance.
With less than two months remaining in the regular season, we assess whether each candidate can ascend through the 60-goal barrier.
Games remaining: 27
The case for Ovechkin: If anyone’s going to break the 60-goal mark for the first time in eight years, it’ll be Ovechkin — who could very well beat Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring record in the coming seasons, a notion that was previously considered unthinkable. Ovechkin is currently in pole position to win the Rocket Richard again and is currently averaging .74 goals/per game. Extrapolated over an 82-game schedule, Ovechkin is on pace to hit exactly 60 goals, even if using pace as a predictive tool this late in the season can often be reductive.
Ovechkin can launch shots from everywhere, but his individual expected goals is outstanding in large part due to the volume of pucks he gets to the net from inside the faceoff circle. He’s making the most of his chances from in close and continues to be elite at finishing opportunities from inside the faceoff circle, primarily through wrist and snap shots. Recording 40 goals with an xG of 28.76, Ovechkin is proving what we’ve known to be true since he was a teenager — he’s a generational prodigy at creating his own chances and finishing them.
We’ve seen this patented play throughout the course of his outstanding career, but Ovechkin is trying to launch one-time bombs from the top of the left faceoff circle with a nearly unprecedented volume and is creating nearly a rebound per game as a result.
Ovechkin will continue to hunt down goals in all scenarios. He’s tied for second in the NHL with 12 power-play goals and is second in even-strength goals with 28. Considering that Washington faces just 11 teams in a playoff spot as of Feb. 9, Ovechkin should have full reign to torture the NHL’s worst teams while looking to pull off one of the more impressive feats of his career.
Expect Ovechkin to reach the 60-goal mark for the second time in his career — all the more impressive that it last happened for him during the 2007-08 campaign — as his pace statistics, advanced numbers and pedigree all see him trending in that direction.
Games remaining: 26
The case for Matthews:
Matthews is the Maple Leafs’ MVP by a wide-margin this season and is furthering his claim as the best 5-on-5 goal scorer on the planet, leading all players with 30 even-strength tallies. Toronto’s power play has been designed around Matthews’ exceptional release and he’s been thriving all season. Before this year, 50 goals was considered a lofty, but attainable target for him. Now, 60 is in play.
The 22-year-old, along with William Nylander, are the foremost reasons why Toronto has been able to sustain a dominant offence — ignoring its other warts aside for a second — and there’s little reason to believe that he’s slowing down anytime soon.
Let’s take a look at Matthews’ scoring chances. He generates a ton of opportunities in front of the net and as we’ve become accustomed to seeing throughout his career, Matthews does an outstanding job of making the most of his chances from inside the faceoff circle. Of the three realistic 60-goal candidates this season, Matthews posts the shortest average shot distance and is outpacing his xG of 23.32, finishing his chances below the hashmarks at a clinical rate. Matthews boasts a 17.8 shooting percentage and his track record shows that he’s not likely to regress during the home stretch.
It’s important to consider the intangible stress Matthews carries which Ovechkin and Pastrnak aren’t subject to this season. He’ll need to drag the Maple Leafs to the playoffs while the Capitals and Bruins can rest easy knowing that their postseason berths are locked up — barring a historic collapse. Toronto will play 13 out of its final 26 games against teams currently in a playoff spot, while trying to swim upstream against a host of contenders battling for the final wild card spot in the conference.
Games remaining: 26
The case for Pastrnak:
Pastrnak has been one of the NHL’s most dangerous scorers since his breakout season in 2016-17, but critics would argue that it was a function of playing alongside the talented duo of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. The 23-year-old is ascending to another tier this season and no one can say he’s merely profiting from one of the NHL’s best lines as he’s been the driving force behind the Bruins this season.
Although Pastrnak doesn’t rely on scoring from inside the faceoff circle as much as Ovechkin or Matthews, he’s among the best players in the league when it comes to finishing in front of the net. His goal chart is similar to Matthews’ in that he thrives in front of the net with a 31.84 average shot distance and is wildly outperforming his xG of 23.44, a testament to his outstanding wrist and snap shots.
Pastrnak leads the NHL with 17 power-play goals and is often afforded plenty of space to cruise in front of the net undetected. Boston plays 13 games against teams currently holding a playoff spot, including an eight-game stretch from Feb. 19-Mar. 3 where the Bruins take on some of the NHL’s best teams. We could see Pastrnak light it up during the imbalanced portion of the schedule, however, with the historically awful Red Wings, Canadiens, Red Wings again and Rangers lined up next for the Bruins.
While he’s been known to score in bunches this season — with five multi-goal games, including a four-goal performance — Pastrnak will be looking to break the 60-goal barrier while the Bruins try to fend off the Lightning for the Atlantic Division’s top seed.
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