By: Joe Pohoryles
In 1999, the greatest player to ever grace the ice hung up his skates. At 38 years old, after over 20 years of dominance, Wayne Gretzky retired with 61 NHL records, and he still holds or shares those records today.
One of those records is for most career goals. Gretzky finished with 894 goals, 93 more than the next highest person on the list, Gordie Howe. It appeared this record – like many of his others – would be unbreakable.
Yet in the year 2020, a potential challenger for the record slowly creeps up the leaderboard, inching closer and closer to what initially seemed impossible. Alex Ovechkin, the greatest scorer of his generation, appears to be the only person with a realistic shot at breaking the record.
In the month that has passed since the first installment, Ovechkin went on to have the best goal-scoring stretch of his entire career. Throughout his career, the most goals he had scored in any seven-game stretch had been 10 goals, which occurred just last season between Dec. 4-19 in 2018. He scored at least one goal in six consecutive games, including back-to-back hat tricks against the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 11, then against the Carolina Hurricanes three days later.
He had scored nine goals during a seven-game stretch a few times prior to 2018, but in this past month, he blew that personal record out of the water. After being held scoreless against the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 11, Ovi went on to score 14 goals across the next seven games, including three hat tricks in the final six games. Never before had he scored that many goals in such a stretch. Never before had he registered three hat tricks in such a short span. At age 34, Ovechkin continues to torch the NHL.
Alex Ovechkin statistics from Jan. 9 – Feb. 8
8 Games Played
1.75 Goals Per Game
35.9% Shooting Percentage
5 Multi-Goal Games
3 Hat Tricks
2 Game-Winning Goals
He brought his season goal total up from 26 to 40. A month ago, he was on pace to finish with around 46-47 goals. Now, with 28 games left in the season, Ovi is on pace to finish with 61 goals. That would be his highest single-season goal total since 2007-08, when he scored 65 goals and won his first Hart Trophy at the age of 22. 61 would be the second-highest mark of his career. A month ago, it was a stretch to ensure he would hit 50 for the season; now, it would be surprising if he didn’t score at least 55.
Of course, this hot streak will have to cool down at some point, so 60 will be a long shot, but it has been a joy to experience while it has lasted. In a matter of days, Ovi vaulted past three all-time greats on the all-time goal scoring list. Going from 684 to 698, Ovi passed the likes of Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Mark Messier to take sole possession of eighth-all time. Former Capital Mike Gartner lies ahead with 708.
Another remarkable statistic in this all-time great stretch of games Ovi has put together is his shooting percentage. Nearly 36 percent of his shots have beaten the netminder. In this past month, he scored over one-third of the times he shot the puck. To put that into perspective, the Florida Panthers’ Noel Acciari leads the NHL in shooting percentage this season with 24.3 percent.
Charlie Simmer holds the single-season shooting percentage record from the 1980-81 season with the Los Angeles Kings, where he scored 56 goals on 171 shots (32.7 percent). Craig Simpson has the career record for shooting percentage of 23.7 percent while playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres across 10 seasons from 1985-1995. Simpson finished with 247 career NHL goals on 1,044 shots; Ovi has 698 goals on 5,483 shots (as of Feb. 8, 2020).
Obviously eight games is an incredibly small sample size compared to the ones mentioned above, but Ovechkin — who has always been a quantity-over-quality-type of shooter — has been firing the puck with historic levels of efficiency. He cannot possibly keep this up forever, but to even reach that percentage at all, especially at his age, is nothing short of remarkable.
Last month, Ovi’s season goals per game average was 0.578. After the past eight games, it is 0.755. His career GPG was .606; now it sits at .614. The fact that a single month could have such an immense impact on his long term numbers makes you wonder what other hot streaks down the line will do to boost his chances of walking away with the record.
If we project Ovi to finish the year with 55 goals, he will be at 713 goals. That would leave him seventh on the list, and just four goals behind Phil Esposito at sixth. If he reaches 60, he would have full possession of sixth place. But if we stick with 713 goals by season’s end, he would need 182 more goals to pass Gretzky.
Assuming he plays 81 games this season (and knocking on every single piece of wood in sight), that would give him 713 goals in 1,165 career games. Let’s see where the players ahead of him on the list sat once they reached 1,165 games in their career:
Career goals through 1,165 NHL games
With the exception of Gretzky, Ovi is well above the career pace of every other man on this list (although he would be just seven goals ahead of Hull).
With Gretzky exactly 100 goals ahead of Ovi at this pace, it appears as if the record will be extremely difficult to reach. That said, after his 1,165th NHL game, Gretzky went on to play 322 more games, and scored just 81 more goals. That equates to 0.252 goals per game, well below his career average of 0.601.
Gretzky slowed down considerably by the end of his career. Like Ovi, he reached his 1,165th game in his age 34 season. He finished that shortened 1994-95 season with 11 goals in 48 games. In the four subsequent seasons, Gretzky scored 23, 25, 23 and finally nine goals before retiring at 38.
If Gretzky had played a full 82-game season in 1994-95, he was on pace to finish with 18-19 goals for . a full season. At the same age, Ovi is poised to blow past 50 goals. Ovi obviously has considerable ground to make up, but if he can avoid such a cliff-dive in production, he can certainly catch up.
If he can get close to 50 in 2020-21, and stay north of 40 in 2021-22, he will be in incredible shape. For now, it can only be hoped that this streak expands as long as it can, and we can root for him to get to 60 on the year.
Maybe it’s a coincidence that Ovechkin went on to have the greatest month of his career immediately after I started this series, and perhaps a slump lies ahead, but what is certain is that the past eight games helped his odds dramatically.
(Cover Photo Credit: NHL.com)