EDMONTON — The ultimate 50-goal moment in this town still belongs to Wayne Gretzky, who scored his 50th in Game 39 back in December of 1981, a lunging Bill Barber watching from his belly as the puck skipped into a vacated Philadelphia Flyers net.
It was a time when 50-goal campaigns grew on trees in the NHL, with 67 separate 50-goal seasons recorded in the ‘80s, 55 in the ‘90s, but just 20 recorded between 2000 and 2010.
In the past seven seasons, the National Hockey League has witnessed just five 50-goal seasons — four by Alex Ovechkin and one (last year) by Leon Draisaitl. The two meet tonight in Edmonton, as the 34-year-old Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals meet Draisaitl’s Edmonton Oilers, a marquee matchup of the only two 50-goal men from a season ago, when Ovechkin’s 51 claimed the Rocket Richard Trophy by just a single tuck.
"Growing up, you watch guys like (Ovechkin) on Youtube, you watch his goals," said Draisaitl. "Last year, being in the race with him was really cool."
Heading into the game Ovechkin has seven goals in 11 games, and Draisaitl has six in 10. Trying to re-ascend to that 50-goal peak is old hat to the Muscovite, but a brand new task for the kid from Cologne.
"I felt like I scored just about every game (last season)," said Draisaitl, who shakes his head at Ovechkin’s 65-goal season in ’07-08. "Thinking about guys scoring 60 in this league, it’s pretty incredible. You gain a lot of respect for guys like Ovie who do it year after year, that many goals. It’s pretty impressive."
Draisaitl scored early in Game 82 last season to finish at an even 50 for the year. That’s one notch in his belt, and so far this season he is on pace for 49 — if he manages to play all 82 games. If Draisaitl surpasses that pace, he’ll have two 50-goal campaigns.
Ovechkin, who is on pace for 52 goals this season, owns seven of the NHL’s 22 50-goal campaigns since he came into the league in 2005-06. The next will be his eighth, one short of the record of nine shared by Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.
"It’s incredible, unbelievable," marveled Draisaitl. "He does it every single year. He has an off year, but an off year is 40 goals for him. Well, scoring 40 goals in this league is very, very hard to do."
The funny thing about Draisaitl is, while Ovechkin is known far and wide as a pure shooter and the ultimate goal scorer, Draisaitl’s reputation is still in the making. We’re not even sure he will go down in history as a ‘shoot-first’ winger, having possessed the puck on a pair of two-on-ones in overtime recently with Connor McDavid, and chosen to pass the puck each time.
Draisaitl may have lost the Rocket Richard Trophy by a goal last season, but he was the NHL’s only 50-goal, 100-point player, a feat of some proportion.
"I think there is a difference in the type of players we are," he said of Ovechkin and himself. "He is a pure shooter. He is out there to shoot the puck, to put it in the net. But that’s even more impressive. Everyone knows it’s coming from that spot, everyone knows he is there. And he still puts it in. It’s impressive."
Over his 12 NHL seasons, Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk has faced the first ballot Hall of Famer Ovechkin far more often than he has seen Draisaitl, who turns 24 on Sunday. Like so many ‘tenders, Dubnyk has pushed off with his left skate knowing that Ovechkin is loading that cannon in the right faceoff circle, moving cross-crease in hopes of filling the appropriate space so the puck hits him rather than the back of the net.
"There’s a ton of velocity on it," Dubnyk said of Ovechkin’s patented one-timer. "He knows where to put it. And it just doesn’t seem to matter where the puck ends up (in his one-timer circle) of where he can hit it. Most of the time he’s going for that low corner, short side. He’s not trying to go over the elbow. It’s halfway up the net, because he knows that even if the goalie is getting there, it’s still a tough place to get to. He just hits it there over and over and over."
Every goalie in the NHL will tell you same story. They know that Ovechkin blast is coming, and where it is coming from. Yet, he continues to light the lamp, 50 times a season.
"Look at their power play," Dubnyk reasons. "Carlson has a cannon. Oshie is dangerous from the slot. So if you want to just go over and stand by Ovie, it’s not going to work. They’ll just make you pay in the middle of the ice.
"You’re trying to cover him … but it just takes one second. One guy is a little bit behind, or gets beat by a pass, and it’s over to him — and it’s comin’. He just doesn’t miss very often."
Of course, Draisaitl is making his way on to the Distant Goalie Warning System as well, a fixture on any pre-game video a goalie watches before facing the Oilers. We asked Dubnyk to contrast the two:
"Ovie has this sweeping wrister that goes 95 miles per hour. He’s got a big hook on his stick, and it’s tough to read the way it comes off. You’ve got to read it quick, because it’s coming in a hurry — and he shoots everything," he said. "With Leon, it’s the same type of thing. The puck comes to him and he’s not missing very often. And he’s a big, strong kid."
The right-shot Ovechkin’s favourite spot is higher in the left circle, and closer to the boards. The lefty Draisaitl’s goals are far more spread out, though when he does hammer a one-timer it is from the right circle, and usually lower towards the goal line.
Draisaitl is like a student in the video room, watching the game of various different players on a hunt for what makes them unique. His favourite is Pavel Datsyuk, but he’ll watch some Ovechkin as well, always able to glean some knowledge from the master.
"Absolutely," Draisaitl said. "The way he positions himself to shoot the puck. The way he separates himself from his opponents, to have that extra second to get it off.
"He is not the (exact) type of player that I am, but I can learn from any player out there."