Five weeks ago, the possibility of Alex Ovechkin taking charge in the NHL goal-scoring race seemed almost as likely as his coach Adam Oates coming out of retirement to return to the ice at age 50.
Yes, Oates remains in his rookie season behind the bench, having nearly guided the surging Washington Capitals to their fifth Southeast Division title in six years, which would become official Tuesday night with a victory over Winnipeg.
Ovechkin? He sits atop the goal-scoring race with 30 goals in 45 games, holding a slim two-goal lead over defending champion Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won the "Rocket" Richard Trophy twice in the previous three seasons.
"A month ago I wouldn’t say anybody was saying he hadn’t lost his [scoring] touch," Oates told a Montreal reporter on Saturday after Ovechkin paced the Capitals’ attack with two goals in a 5-1 win. "But we had faith in him."
Ovie has 21 goals in his past 20 games and Washington has a 15-4-1 record in that span. On March 13, Ovechkin had scored nine goals in 25 games and the Capitals sat low in the Eastern Conference standings with a 10-14-1 mark.
With 10 goals in his past eight outings, Ovechkin is playing well enough to hold off Stamkos, who has found the back of the net twice in his past six contests.
Ovie has scored three goals in Washington’s last two meetings with Winnipeg but is 0-fer in two games apiece versus Ottawa and Boston, the Capitals’ opponents to end the regular season.
As for Stamkos, imagine how his recent performance might have been different had the Lightning been in a heated playoff race. Instead, they are 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference and losers of six in a row, but the 23-year-old centre has 28 goals.
Tampa Bay also missed qualifying for the playoffs when Stamkos was the NHL’s top goal-scorer in 2010 and last spring.
He will face Toronto, Boston and Florida to finish the season, and has scored one, two and four goals, respectively, against those clubs this season.
Hot on Stamkos’s heels is fellow Toronto-area native John Tavares, whose team-leading 26 goals is a big reason the New York Islanders are sixth in the East entering play Tuesday.
Ready to pounce
Should Ovechkin grip his stick too hard this week, Tavares is capable of getting on a scoring tear. He has three goals in his past six starts and has scored two goals this season against each of his team’s final three opponents: Carolina, Philadelphia and Buffalo.
All three of those teams are out of playoff contention and that could bode well for Tavares, who has 16 goals in 19 games this season against non-playoff squads, compared to eight goals in 23 contests versus teams that are bound for the post-season.
The most surprising contender for the goal-scoring title is Los Angeles’s Jeff Carter, who has scored the quietest 25 goals in the NHL this season.
To win his first Richard trophy, the seven-year NHL veteran would have to light it up against Minnesota, Detroit and San Jose while Ovechkin, Stamkos and Tavares shoot blanks.
Carter has combined for three goals against the Wild and Red Wings this year and seemingly would have to dominate those clubs as the Sharks have held the 28-year-old without a goal in three meetings this season.
Do you like Carter’s chances or would you lean to Ovechkin, Stamkos or Tavares?
Have your say by voting in our poll above and tell us in the comment section below who will win the 2013 NHL scoring title.