- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

After the celebration had died down, the festivities were over and the moment had passed, Alex Ovechkin’s cell phone rang. It was Wayne Gretzky on the other end of the line, calling to congratulate Ovechkin on scoring his 50th goal in the Washington Capitals’ 4-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.

“That’s greatness recognizing greatness,” coach Barry Trotz said Wednesday morning, having been apprised of the gesture.

Ovechkin reached the 50-goal mark for the sixth time in 10 seasons on Tuesday, and had the 2012-13 season not been reduced to 48 games, Ovechkin was on pace to have surpassed it then as well. Coincidentally, that first-period goal was also the 472nd of Ovechkin’s career, tying him with Peter Bondra for the most goals scored in franchise history.

Not three years ago, Ovechkin was being written off as someone who looked and played uninspired, who was focused merely on scoring goals and filling highlight reels with little regard to his team’s success.

His reawakening, then, has been quite special. Now, at just 29 years old, it remains entirely plausible that Ovechkin could eventually surpass a mark shared by Gretzky and Mike Bossy, who scored more than 50 goals in a season nine times in their career.

“It’s an incredible feat,” left wing Brooks Laich said. “And I was looking at it, he could potentially be the top guy. He might hit 10 50-goal seasons and set the record. A couple of guys have nine, and he’s only 29 years old, or whatever he is. I mean, he has the potential there to put up staggering numbers, all-time numbers. It’s incredible. He’s almost at 500 before he’s 30 years old.”

Only nine active players have hit the 50-goal threshold, and outside of Ovechkin, only Jaromir Jagr, in his 22nd season in the league, has done it three times.

Ovechkin’s feat also comes at a time when many of the league’s best goal-scorers have found themselves in a rut. Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and the New York Rangers’ Rick Nash are tied for second behind Ovechkin with 40 goals this season; entering Wednesday, the Anaheim Ducks’ Corey Perry had scored 32 goals through 63 games, while Pittsburgh Penguins teammates Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, each of whom have missed time because of injuries, had scored 28 goals and 25 goals, respectively.

Even so, the number of goals scored by teams in a game this season has fallen in line with the output in recent years. Teams have scored an average of 2.735 goals per game this season, marginally down from the 2.744 goals scored by teams in a game last season. Teams scored 2.7215 goals in 2012-13, the lockout-shortened year, and 2.7341 goals per game the season before.

Not since 2005-06, the first season back after a lockout wiped out an entire 82-game schedule, have teams averaged more than three goals a game.

Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen, who spent the previous four seasons with the Penguins after four seasons with the Dallas Stars, theorized that scoring is harder to come by because of the individual attention paid by each team to an opponent’s top scoring threat.

The amount of film review incorporated into team meetings has exploded across the league in recent years, and rather than just relying upon scouting reports, previous experience and blanket schemes, teams are now able to identify and isolate certain players’ tendencies and force them to defer to teammates.

“I think the other thing, too, is that forwards backcheck now,” Niskanen said. “They used to backcheck, but it wasn’t a five-man backcheck. It was, ‘OK, we’ve got to get one guy back to help a D,’ but now it’s three forwards pressuring from behind. I think Detroit kind of started that. They were always the best at backpressuring and just shrinking the gap from behind.”

Strong goaltending has also been a part of it. On Thursday night, the Capitals will visit the Montreal Canadiens and Carey Price, who leads the league with a 1.92 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage and is a candidate for the Hart Trophy, given annually to the league MVP.

Twelve goaltenders have finished with a save percentage greater than .930 over the past five seasons; only eight had done so in the previous 10 seasons, including four in 2003-04.

“Everyone can play nowadays, and it’s one of those things where if the goalies are getting better and the players are getting better and it’s a faster game, you know, goals are going to come,” said left wing Curtis Glencross. “At the same time, goalies now, they’re getting some big boys in net, and they drop to their knees and they’re still crossbar height. That takes up a lot of net.”

When Ovechkin was asked Wednesday night about continually reaching the 50-goal mark, he said that it gets more difficult every year. He joked that it’s not because of his age — “I’m still 21,” he cracked — but that the game has evolved since he debuted in 2005-06.

“The goalies play better,” Ovechkin said. “The system of the teams is much different than my first year. They give more attention to where we are, especially when we have that kind of success on the line they put against us: The best defensive line, the best [defensemen].”

Trotz agreed with Ovechkin’s assessment, but clarified that the game hasn’t just evolved over the past decade. Rather, it’s changed markedly in the last three or four seasons, calling into question whether Ovechkin would even be able to continue his torrid pace.

“Every decade, there’s iconic players, and the game keeps evolving,” Trotz said. “It keeps getting better in some areas, and that’s everything, from the player safety standpoint to technology to training and all those things that go into being a pro athlete now.”

And, with all due respect to Gretzky and Ovechkin, Trotz said, “the greatest player that ever played this game hasn’t been born yet.”

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