Ovechkin vs. Laine vs. Malkin: NHL stars race to 50 goals
WASHINGTON (AP) — Patrik Laine knows where he stands.
The Winnipeg Jets winger might not keep track of each time Alex Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin scores, but he knows how many goals they have.
“I just sometimes look at the scoreboard and the score sheets,” Laine said. “I always pretty much know where’s everyone at.”
Laine and Ovechkin went into their showdown Monday night tied at 40 goals. Ovechkin scored twice and Laine once to keep the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy and pursuit of 50 goals red hot in the NHL’s stretch run.
At 19 years old, Laine is a real threat to win his first goal-scoring title, while Ovechkin at 32 is seeking his eighth 50-goal season and seventh Rocket Richard.
“Most great goal-scorers, when they’re in their early 20s is when they’re putting up all their big numbers,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. “It’s very, very unique and unusual for a player of Alex’s vintage to be staring 50 goals in the face.”
The goals race comes down to Ovechkin and Malkin — the Nos. 1 and 2 picks from 2004 — and Laine, the second selection in 2016 who has shown he deserves to be in the conversation for the best goal-scorer in hockey today.
“He’s got a gift for scoring goals,” Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot said. “It’s even more profound that you look for him in the offensive zone because if he gets the puck — it’s crazy to say — it’s like a 60, 70 percent chance he’s going to put it in the back of the net. I’ve never played with anyone like that — that dangerous, that lethal.”
Winnipeg teammates aren’t shy to say Laine’s abilities are “Ovechkin-like” because Laine is scoring as a teenager the way only the Washington Capitals superstar, Steven Stamkos, Auston Matthews and Ilya Kovalchuk have over the past two decades. Ovechkin is no doubt the greatest goal-scorer of this generation and on Monday became the fourth-fastest player in league history to 600.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz thinks 50 is a more important milestone for his Russian winger given his recent trajectory.
“The 600 will be something he’ll have forever, but I think he’ll put a lot of pride if he can get 50 this year,” Trotz said. “I think the way he looks at it, it’s so hard to do and he had a down year (last season). He wants to show that he can still do it.”
Ovechkin soaked up 600 quickly and is now eight away from 50 with 13 games to go.
“It would be pretty amazing and pretty unbelievable,” Ovechkin said. “I still have time, and (with) a little bit of luck, a little bit of help from upstairs, I don’t know, we’ll see.”
Like Ovechkin, Laine said scoring down the stretch is important for team goals and he has certainly helped the Jets. Laine has scored 16 goals in his past 12 games
The most prolific young Finn since Teemu Selanne said winning the Rocket Richard Trophy has always been a dream, and now 50 is in reach as he clicks with linemates Nikolai Ehlers and Paul Stastny.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Laine said. “Ten games ago, I was at 25 and nobody was talking about even 40. There’s a lot of things that could happen. If we’re playing like this with Niky and Paul, why not?”
Ovechkin already has nine more goals than he put up all last season. Only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Marcel Dionne have scored 40 goals in a season more times than Ovechkin.
“I don’t think people understand how hard that is to do,” Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said. “He makes it seem so effortless. He’s got a very special shot.”
Jets center Andrew Copp wondered if Laine’s shot is even more special than Ovechkin’s. Copp hasn’t seen Laine score from the center red line yet but joked, “I’m sure that day will come.”
“Ovi’s got a big, winding up wrister and it comes off just kind of so crazy whereas Patty, it’s almost like he’s throwing darts at the net,” Chiarot said. “It’s just a little flick of the wrist and it’s kind of where he wants it. ... I think it’s the most dangerous shot in the league.”
Jets coach Paul Maurice senses the confidence oozing from Laine just from watching him at practice. He can see an entirely different player from a month ago.
“If you’re getting close to 50, you’re feeling good about your game,” Maurice said. “Any of these guys, confidence is a critical piece. That puck is off Patty’s stick where he wants it right now every time. So he’s feeling it, he’s feeling good.”
Malkin, who has 39 goals, right now might be the most dangerous player in the league. The Pittsburgh Penguins center is right there with Ovechkin, New Jersey Devils winger Taylor Hall, Stamkos and Tampa Bay Lightning teammate Nikita Kucherov and Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon in a crowded MVP race.
Playing on the same team as Sidney Crosby could leave Malkin underappreciated at times, but he’s playing some of the best hockey of his career.
“I have confidence right now,” Malkin said recently. “It’s like every shot goes in. It’s funny sometimes. I’m trying to do my best.”
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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