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Kovalchuk on pace to be the first 60 goal scorer in a decade


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Not that long ago ? in 2004 ? Wayne Gretzky proclaimed the 50-goal scorer nearly extinct.

 

That season the Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk, Columbus' Rick Nash and Calgary's Jarome Iginla all tied for the NHL lead with just 41 goals.

 

It's a brand new world.

 

This season, Kovalchuk is on pace to become the league's first 60-goal scorer since 1995-96, when Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr accomplished the feat. The 22-year-old leads the league with 32 goals in 40 games. With 38 games remaining, he is on a pace to score 62. He is also on pace for 120 points, something that hasn't been done since 2001, again by Jagr.

 

Kovalchuk, named the NHL's offensive player of the week on Monday, has scored nine times in his last five games.

 

If Kovalchuk can hit the rarefied air of 60, he would join a club that has only 18 members, eight of which are in the Hall of Fame. Seven others are either recently retired or active, a group that probably includes at least three future Hall of Famers.

 

Kovalchuk is reluctant to talk about individual goals, saying the most important thing for him is to make the playoffs. He does acknowledge what it means to score 50, the magical number first achieved by Montreal's legendary Maurice "Rocket" Richard in the 1944-45 season when the NHL played only 50 games.

 

"When you score the 50 it takes you to the next level," Kovalchuk said on a conference call Monday.

 

Currently, there are seven players on pace to score 50 goals.

 

Now, for some historical perspective. The 50-goal scorer had his heyday in the 1980s, when the feat was performed 76 times. After 1992-93 - when a record 14 players hit the 50-goal plateau - the number began to shrink.

 

In this decade, only six players have reached 50 and none since Colorado's Milan Hejduk had 50 in 2002-03.

 

Thrashers general manager Don Waddell sits on the NHL's competition committee, which recommended the rules changes that took affect with the league's new collective bargaining agreement. He said they're having their intended affect.

 

"Certainly," he said. "The idea was to open up the games and let the skilled players be the best players they can be. The results reflect that."

 

Kovalchuk was asked why so many players are on a pace to score 50 goals.

 

"Because you got more chances in the game right now," he said. "More room, more space. The guys like [Carolina's Eric] Staal, [the New York Rangers' Jaromir] Jagr, very skilled guys. I think it's easier for you to score right now. You have more power plays. I think that's why."

 

Thrasher Peter Bondra has scored 50 goals twice in his career. He noted the importance of teammates in helping a player reach that mark.

 

"With Kovy's shot, if a goalie loses vision of the puck, it's hard with that speed of the puck to track it back," Bondra said. "No way, he cannot do it. Definitely, Kovy's benefiting from a couple of unselfish plays from teammates in front of the net. But you have to use your best players. He's the right man in the right spot."

 

Bondra said he never had the mentality of trying to score 50.

 

"If I want to score the second goal, I have to score the first," he said. "You try to play your best and play the game to win the game. The goals will come."

 

Kovalchuk seems to have that mindset. Coinciding with a five-game losing streak from Nov. 29 to Dec. 6 that left the team six games under .500 before its current 10-2-3 run, he had a six-game goal-less run. Now, he ranks second in the league in points.

 

"He's bought into what [coach Bob Hartley] has told him," Waddell said. "He won't ever be a great defensive player, but he can be a responsible player. You saw him score that empty-net goal [Friday] because Bob felt he could put him in that situation."

 

If Kovalchuk continues on his current pace and breaks 60, he will join the two Russians to do so, Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure. Kovalchuk said he first saw NHL hockey in 1994 when he became a fan of Bure who starred for Vancouver in the Stanley Cup finals.

 

"That's going to be great," he said. "But the most important thing for me, you know what it is."

 

Playoffs.

 

MAGIC NUMBER

 

A look at the number of 50-goal scorers in the NHL by decade. Rule changes and the number of games player per season have had an effect on the totals.

 

Decade Number

 

1940s 1

 

1950s 0

 

1960s 5

 

1970s 31

 

1980s 76

 

1990s 55

 

2000s 6

 

LAST TO REACH 60

 

1994 ? Pavel Bure, 64

 

1996 ? Jaromir Jagr, 62; Mario Lemieux, 69

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