Keep your eye on the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy – it’s going to be a doozy that goes down to the wire. Six top-notch goal scorers are in the running and another six snipers are within striking distance; 12 players have reached the 20-goal plateau as the league schedule turns into the second half.
Here’s how the NHL dirty-dozen goal race breaks down:
1. Marian Gaborik, NY Rangers (28 goals in 42 games)
He’s missed two games due to injury, but that was back at the end of October. Along with goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Gaborik has been the main reason why the Rangers remain in the playoff conversation. The blazing left winger has goals in 23 games – he’s scored in more contests than any other NHLer this season – including five two-goal games. His longest scoring drought this season is three games (twice) and Gaborik is on pace for his first 50-goal season (he had 42 goals in 77 games in 2007-08). Rangers coach John Tortorella likes to ride his star players, so Gaborik will be expected to continue carrying the offense. Not that that’s anything new to the former Wild lone gunner.
Rocket Richard outlook: As always, it’s all about his health. If he stays groin-strong, Gaborik will remain in the trophy hunt to the end.
2. Patrick Marleau, San Jose (28 goals in 44 games)
What?! Who?! Yes, it’s true: The Great Patrick Marleau Breakout continues. The former Sharks captain – he was stripped of the ‘C’ last summer as coach Todd McLellan wanted to shake up the team’s leadership – set a career high with 38 goals last season and it appears he’ll surpass that mark this year. That’s an impressive feat, considering this is Marleau’s 12th NHL campaign. Players don’t usually set career-best scoring marks in their 11th and 12th seasons; those types of accomplishments typically occur in Years 5 or 6.
Then again, Marleau broke into the NHL when he was barely 18 years old and just turned 30 prior to the start of this season. He’s still in his prime. Plus, the addition of Dany Heatley has taken some of the focus away from Marleau – opposing defenses can’t cover him, Heatley and Joe Thornton, which probably explains why the three linemates are all among the league’s top 15 scorers. As long as he skates alongside Thornton, Marleau will get plenty of pretty passes and scoring chances. But if McLellan decides to break up his three-headed monster of a first line to spread the scoring around a bit, it’ll cost Marleau a few goals.
Rocket Richard outlook: While there’s no doubting his elite skill level, it would be a huge surprise if Marleau led the league in goals this season. He finished 11th in the NHL in goals last year, the only time he’s placed in the top 20.
3. Alex Ovechkin, Washington (27 goals in 35 games)
Despite the fact he’s missed eight games due to injury (six) and suspension (two), Ovechkin is just one off the goal pace. Which is about what you’d expect from the NHL’s two-time defending goal-scoring champ. Ovechkin has had one three-game goal drought and has recorded eight two-goal games this season (no hat tricks yet, though). What can you say about the league’s most recognizable face and a superstar who simply lives and loves to score (as evidenced by seasons of 52, 46, 65 and 56 goals)? If Ovechkin, the new captain of the Capitals, does what only he can do, he’s the Rocket man.
Rocket Richard outlook: With the ability to approach 60 goals in just more than 70 games, Ovechkin is the one player who could still run away and hide with the goal-scoring trophy.
4. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh (26 goals in 44 games)
As we saw in last year’s playoffs (15 goals in 24 games), Crosby can put the puck in the net at a prodigious pace when he takes it upon himself to shoot rather than pass. He has 41 goals in his past 68 games; his career high of 39 goals, set in his rookie season of 2005-06, seems certain to fall. Crosby is a little streakier than some of the NHL’s other goal leaders, with a seven-game goal drought (as well as seven goals and 11 points in a three-game stretch) in November, and a one-goal-in-seven-games slump in December. It’s interesting – and indicative of his determined nature – that Crosby, one of the most sublimely skilled players the NHL has ever seen, scores most of his goals in the dirty areas within a few feet of the net.
Rocket Richard outlook: Given his history of recording nearly an assist per game, it’s a little difficult to imagine the playmaking Crosby suddenly morphing into the league’s most prolific goal scorer. But it would be stupid to put anything past the NHL’s most focused superstar.
5. Dany Heatley, San Jose (25 goals in 44 games)
As soon as Ottawa traded Heatley to the Sharks, people started talking about how well the natural-born scorer would synch up with Thornton, the natural-born passer. It didn’t take long, as Heatley collected a hat trick (and a plus-6 rating) in his fourth game with San Jose. He’s added another hat trick, plus 19 one-goal games and his longest slump has been all of four games. But Heatley has to ramp up his production in the second half if he wants to record his third 50-goal campaign.
Rocket Richard outlook: He’s a good bet to finish ahead of Marleau with the most goals among Sharks players and as a pure sniper who plays almost exclusively with Thornton, he could get red-hot – and stay that way – for the rest of the season. Then again, he has “only” seven goals in his past 19 games; that’s a 30-goal pace, not a 50-goal one.
6. Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta (25 goals in 37 games)
Big, fast and with a lethal shot, Kovalchuk was the Pavel Bure heir apparent (from a goal-scoring perspective) until Ovechkin showed up a few years later and stole the crown. But don’t dismiss the pure scoring capabilities of the Thrashers superstar – he amassed 11 goals in the first 10 games he played this season (despite missing six games due to injury in the middle of that startling start). Kovalchuk has gone three games without scoring only once this year and has been a consistent goal threat despite the will-he-sign-or-be-traded soap opera that is playing out in Atlanta.
Rocket Richard outlook: Kovalchuk won the last Richard Trophy before the lockout – with 41 goals in 2003-04 – and has surpassed that total in each of the past four seasons, but has yet to claim a second scoring award. If he doesn’t come to contract terms with Atlanta and is traded at the deadline, look for him to explode with his new team. If he does come to contract terms with Atlanta before the deadline, look for him to explode with his old team.
SIX LONG SHOTS
7. Jarome Iginla, Calgary (21 goals in 44 games)
It’s been a streaky season for the Flames’ ultimate sniper. Iginla had a stretch of 12 goals in 10 games in November; more recently, however, he has just four goals in his past 18 contests. But the two-time Richard Trophy winner is the definition of a goal-scoring power forward and few players collect goals in bunches like Iginla.
8. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay (21 goals in 42 games)
The second-year Lightning star has cooled considerably; after 17 goals in his first 24 games, Stamkos has scored just four times in his past 18 outings. But he’s made it obvious that he boasts top-end sniping skill and will be part of the Rocket Richard conversation for years to come.
9. Henrik Sedin, Vancouver (20 goals in 44 games)
When twin brother and traditional goal-scoring linemate Daniel missed 18 games with a foot injury, traditional playmaker Henrik stepped up and started scoring – and he hasn’t stopped. Not only is he just two off his career high for goals, Henrik is the NHL’s leading point-scorer. He’s not going to win the Richard Trophy, but the fact we have to mention him speaks volumes to his offensive breakout this season.
10. Dustin Penner, Edmonton (20 goals in 44 games)
For all that has gone wrong in Edmonton this season, Penner’s coming-of-age is one of the best stories in the entire league. His pace has slowed somewhat – no doubt due to losing silky-smooth linemate Ales Hemsky for the rest of the year to injury – but Penner gets big-time praise for his big-time play.
11. Mike Cammalleri, Montreal (20 goals in 46 games)
It took him seven games to record his first goal as a Hab and he has just two markers in his past 12 games. In between, though, Cammalleri was Montreal’s best offensive player; his skating, puckhandling and willingness to go into the danger zones make him a lethal scorer because he gets his shot off so quickly and accurately.
12. Bobby Ryan, Anaheim (20 goals in 44 games)
For a player supposedly enduring a bit of a sophomore slump, Ryan has still managed to do more than his share of scoring. He and linemate Corey Perry (17 goals) account for 30 percent of Anaheim’s offense.
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