From a team perspective, Monday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and visiting Winnipeg Jets has its own set of storylines.
A win for the Capitals would vault them back into first place in a volatile Metropolitan Division, a revolving throne that was last claimed on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Penguins leapfrogged the Caps with a 3-1 win against the Dallas Stars.
For the Jets, a win accomplishes two things: First and foremost, it keeps a six-point gap between themselves and the Minnesota Wild for second place in the Central Division. Secondly, a win claws back a couple points from the Nashville Predators, who sit atop the summit of the toughest division in hockey with a seven-point lead.
Given that the Jets play Nashville on the back-to-back on Tuesday, they could close that gap to just three points with two wins on the trot over the next 48 hours.
But these are all team goals and mumbo jumbo. The real story on Monday night, in Washington, in Winnipeg, and across the NHL, is focused squarely on the battle between Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine.
Yes, Monday’s game is the unofficial beginning of the race to the Rocket Richard Trophy.
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Both Ovechkin, a six-time winner, and Laine, a 19-year-old NHL sophomore, sit tied for first place on 40 goals, one ahead of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin is clearly in the race, as are a bevy of other players. But tonight’s spotlight is on the champ and the pretender.
Both teams have 14 games remaining on their respective schedules.
“It’s always been one of my dreams to win it,” Laine told Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun over the weekend. “It’s something that every goal-scorer dreams about. There are still 15 games to go. There are a lot of things that can happen, but (along) with our team goals, it’s a good motivation for me.”
In many respects, Laine has emulated parts of what has made Ovechkin — Laine’s childhood idol — the NHL’s best goal-scorer since he was drafted years ago. Laine’s one-timer, like Ovi’s, is as lethal as they come. His position on the power play, Ovi’s office, as it were, is much the same. The release? Both are world-class, and well beyond their peers in the NHL.
Ovechkin has been scoring consistently all season long. For Laine, he’s produced 15 goals in his past 11 games, is on an 11-game point streak and has at least one goal in five-straight and nine of his last 10.
Unlike last season, where his offense sputtered down the stretch, Laine has come alive to make himself the favorite to capture his first goal-scoring crown.
Laine is shooting at a few ticks over 20 percent thus far and leads the NHL in power play goals with 18. And his scoring on Winnipeg’s current six-game road trip has helped his team tremendously in the win department. Laine has seven of the Jets’ 11 goals through four games. Winnipeg is 3-1-0 on the trip so far.
Ovechkin, by comparison, has just one goal in his past five games. But no one takes more shots in the NHL than the Great 8. His sheer volume would lead one to suggest that he’ll get back on that goal-scoring wagon soon. Perhaps even tonight.
On your marks.
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck