Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ranking the ten best Rocket Richard races

With less than three weeks left in the season, most of the attention is focused on the playoff races. And rightly so, as teams battle it out down to the wire to see who’ll earn a spot and how the matchups will sort out.

But there are other races worth watching, including for some of the individual honours. The Art Ross battle is shaping up as a great one, with season-long leader Nikita Kucherov trying to fend off late surges from Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Evgeni Malkin among others. Meanwhile, Kucherov’s teammate Andrei Vasilevskiy is trying to hold off Pekka Rinne and Connor Hellebuyck for the wins title.

But with all due respect to those races, the best of the bunch is for the Rocket Richard Trophy. The goal-scoring title is shaping up as a potential head-to-head fight to the finish between Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine, a classic contest between the old guard and the next generation. Laine is the teenaged whiz kid hungry to claim the title in just his second season, while Ovechkin represents the grizzled veteran who isn’t ready to give it up. Mix in Malkin, Eric Staal, the stunning underdog story of William Karlsson and a few others, and this one could come down to the wire. If so, it may be remembered as one of the greatest Rocket Richard races we’ve ever seen.

So today, let’s put together that list, if only to give Laine and Ovechkin something to aim for. The Rocket Richard Trophy has been around since the 1998–99 season, giving us 18 races to work with. Some of those were duds; even in the dead-puck era, the award has been won by a margin of 10 goals or more a half-dozen times. We’ll narrow it down to a top 10, counting our way down to the best race we’ve seen… at least until this year’s.

No. 10: 2000–01

The race: One year after running away with the 2000 title by 14 goals, Pavel Bure had his sights set on a second straight win. It seemed like he’d get it by a similar margin, but a late-season slump saw him finish with just one goal in his final six. That opened the door for two veteran stars who finished hot: Jaromir Jagr, who scored nine in his last six games, and Joe Sakic, who had eight in his last four.

The winner: Bure had built such a big lead that the strong finishes only managed to make the gap respectable. Bure took home the crown with 59 goals, easily topping Sakic (54) and Jagr (52).

The legacy: As races go, it wasn’t all that dramatic. But the fact that it featured three first-ballot Hall-of-Famers earns it a spot in our top 10, narrowly beating out Corey Perry‘s win in the similarly lopsided 2011 race.

No. 9: 1998–99

The race: The Rocket Richard didn’t even exist when the season began; it was only unveiled that January. Still, it looked like Teemu Selanne would capture the inaugural trophy relatively easily when he hit the 45-goal mark with eight games to play. But he went cold down the stretch, opening the door for a field that included Jagr, Alexie Yashin, Tony Amonte and John Leclair to at least make things interesting.

The winner: Jagr and Amonte made a late push, with each scoring four times in their final three games to hit the 44-goal mark. But Selanne coasted home to the crown, finishing the year with 47.

The legacy: The race was just OK, and is probably best remembered just for being the first for the new trophy. Still, given the increased profile that came with attaching Richard’s name to the goal-scoring race, Selanne felt like a worthy winner. An odd fact: The 47 goals made this only the fifth-highest goal-scoring season of his career, but it was the only time he ended up alone in top spot on the leaderboard.

No. 8: 2015–16

The race: It came down to a two-horse race, with Alex Ovechkin gunning for his fourth straight crown while Patrick Kane looked for his first.

The winner: Kane finished the season with a two-goal performance, but Ovechkin topped him with a hat trick. That gave him the title by a four-goal cushion, and even that makes it sound closer than it really was — Kane needed seven goals in his last five to even get that close, and nobody else came within nine of Ovechkin.

The legacy: In terms of star power, this race was right up there; Kane took home the Hart Trophy that season, and Ovechkin had already won it three times. But there wasn’t much suspense, beyond wondering whether Ovechkin would get to 50. He did, with 10 minutes to spare.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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