Nikita Kucherov Image by: Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images
NIkita Kucherov has led the NHL scoring race for most of the season, but his lead has dwindled in recent weeks. Now, as the campaign draws to a close, he's at risk of losing the title in one of the most intriguing Art Ross Trophy races in years.
There was a time in mid-January when it wasn’t foolish to believe Nikita Kucherov was going to run away with the Art Ross Trophy. The same assumption was made again in mid-February after he warded off pushes from a few players for the NHL's scoring lead. Even in early March, Kucherov had himself a comfortable six-point cushion, which in any other season would have seemed a near insurmountable margin for whoever was destined to finish second on the league’s scoring table.
This isn’t any other season, though, and Kucherov’s Art Ross bid appears to be in more peril than anyone would have thought two months, one month or even as little as a couple of weeks back. Over the second half of the campaign, Kucherov has watched several players take chunks out of the lead he had built in the scoring race, whittling away at what was at times anywhere from a two-to-eight point gap between he and the next-highest scorer. And Thursday night, for the first time in months, Kucherov has finally seen his lead slip to the slimmest of margins: one single, solitary point.
Entering action on Thursday, Kucherov had a three-point cushion over both Evgeni Malkin and Nathan MacKinnon, a four-point edge on Connor McDavid and a seven-point spread on Claude Giroux. But over the course of one evening of action, that lead was lessened, this despite Kucherov’s Lightning playing in a game in which the two teams combined for 13 goals. (Tampa Bay defeated the New York Islanders 7-6, with the Art Ross leader registering just a single point.) So, while Malkin wasn’t in action, MacKinnon had one point to keep pace and Giroux made up ground with a three-point outing. But it was McDavid who managed to bring himself within a hair of the scoring lead and put considerable pressure on Kucherov thanks to a four-point night.
The incredible thing about McDavid’s pursuit of the Art Ross is that we almost should have expected it given he’s basically had nothing but individual awards to play for since the first half of the campaign. At the all-star break, the McDavid’s Oilers were 10 points out of a playoff spot and five teams separated Edmonton from the final playoff berth in the Western Conference. Granted, that hasn’t made his pursuit of the hardware any less impressive.
At mid-season, McDavid was a dozen points back of Kucherov for the scoring lead and as players returned from the all-star festivities, there was still a double-digit gap between the Oilers captain and a second consecutive scoring title. Since Feb. 1, though, he’s been half man, half point-scoring machine. In 25 games, he’s accumulated 21 goals, 40 points and methodically chipped away at Kucherov’s lead. Helping McDavid make up so much ground is that when he has scored over the past two months, he’s scored in bunches. More than half of his games since the start of February have been multi-point outings, including six games in which he’s scored three or more points.
McDavid winning the Art Ross this season, and it sure seems as though he’s driven to do nothing less, would be significant for two reasons. First and foremost, it would make him the first player to win consecutive scoring titles in the post-lockout era and the first repeat champion since Jaromir Jagr completed his reign of four straight Art Ross Trophies from 1997-98 to 2000-01. Furthermore, winning the Art Ross this year would mean McDavid has overcome a 10-point deficit following the all-star break, and that would be the second-largest post-break comeback since the NHL’s lockout season.
Five times in the past 12 seasons the eventual Art Ross winner has been trailing the scoring leader heading into the break — in Olympic years, we used the two-week layoff as the demarcation point — but those deficits have most often been in the single digits. Joe Thornton, for instance, trailed by seven points entering the Olympic break in 2005-06. Alexander Ovechkin was two points off the scoring lead as he headed to the 2007-08 All-Star Game. Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin trailed by nine points and three points, respectively, entering the 2009-10 and 2010-11 breaks. The undisputed king of the Art Ross comeback in the post-lockout era, however, is Jamie Benn. He was 16 points off the scoring lead at the 2014-15 all-star break, yet climbed all the way back into the race and won the whole shebang with a four-point game in the final outing of the season. Even with Benn’s comeback considered, though, that no other Art Ross winner has made up more than nine points gives us an idea of how rare it is for a player to make the kind of charge McDavid has over the past several weeks.
That said, there’s another potential winner whose turnaround would be even more impressive, and that’s Malkin.
At the all-star break, when Kucherov had 64 points to his name, the Penguins star wasn’t even really in the Art Ross conversation. He was having a good season, to be sure, but his 52 points put him a dozen back of top spot and even that was almost unthinkable given he was trailing by 20 points as of New Year’s Day. But Malkin has, for the better part of half a season, been the hottest scorer in the league. Since Dec. 1, Malkin has 34 goals and 70 points in 48 games — seven more than McDavid over the same span — and he has closed the gap to four points with eight games left on Pittsburgh’s schedule. If he were to close the gap and win the award thanks to a few big nights, he would become the post-lockout era's only three-time Art Ross winner and become only the ninth player in NHL history to win the award three times. He’d do this while closing a 12-point gap post-all-star break, too, which would be that much more impressive than McDavid erasing a 10-point deficit.
McDavid and Malkin aren’t the only players left in the mix, however, as all Nathan MacKinnon would need is a pair of big games to overtake Kucherov for the scoring lead.
That MacKinnon is in the race at all is remarkable, too, given he’s played only 66 games, the fewest games of any top-15 scorer in the NHL. MacKinnon winning the award — and his 1.4 points per game would suggest he’s going to make a push over the final eight games of the campaign — would see him make a bit of post-lockout history himself. While McDavid and Malkin have made charges, an Art Ross victory would see MacKinnon capture the award in fewer games played than any player since Jagr’s 63-game, 96-point scoring title victory in 1999-2000. An Art Ross win would also almost assuredly see MacKinnon pair a scoring title with the Hart Trophy, too.
Finally, there’s no reason to count Giroux out of the race, either. Though he’s five points back with only seven games remaining, Benn’s stretch of 13 points in five games during the 2014-15 campaign is proof positive that a five-point lead doesn’t make the scoring leader invincible. One or two big games from the Flyers captain and he’s flirting with the scoring title. This is the point where it’s worth noting, too, that Philadelphia has contests left against the Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes, a pair of woeful defensive clubs upon which Giroux could feast.
Of course, this has been Kucherov’s scoring championship to lose this season, and he hasn’t exactly lost it yet. And while the final two weeks of the campaign have enough intrigue on their own, the scoring race and Kucherov’s attempt to ward off those who are chasing him down will make the end of the campaign that much more interesting.
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