The most goals Alex Steen has ever scored in an NHL season is 24, and on Wednesday night he scored his 20th in 24 games.
The accomplishment moved him into a tie with the revitalized Alex Ovechkin for the league lead, and both were well ahead of Patrick Kane's third-best 15 after he embarrassed the Calgary Flames in the third period. That Steen is there at all has been something of a curiosity, but it has been exceedingly entertaining.
This is astonishing, this is fun to watch, and is a race that has as many smoke and mirrors than the last six David Blaine specials combined.
There are exactly two explanations for Steen's explosion into the top of the goalscoring race, and both are very simple. The first is that he's shooting the puck slightly more often per game than he has in the last few seasons, which is the kind of thing that's always going to result in more goals.
The reason why “more goals” now apparently means “an absurd number of goals” is that Steen is currently shooting 25.3 percent. This essentially means that one of every four shots he takes hits the back of the net.
This is an absurdly high number, not just for Steen, but for literally any NHL player. The number of players to finish the season with at least 60 games played and a shooting percentage better than 25 percent are Mike Ribeiro (27 goals on 107 shots in 76 games in 2007-08) and Mathieu Perreault (16 on 60 in 64 games in 2011-12).
You'll note, very quickly, that the reason for this might, on some level, be selectivity. Putting 107 and 60 shots on goal in 76 and 64 games, respectively, denotes a general lack of predisposition toward shooting in the first place. Without going back and looking at each of those goals, we can probably infer that they were likely the result of guys shooting on only the most obvious of scoring chances.
Steen's per-game shot total is only 27th in the league, but only Steven Stamkos has a credibly close goal total (14 in 17) and similarly high shooting percentage (23.3). No reasonable person would agree that this is the kind of thing that's particularly out of the ordinary for a kid who's already pretty close to being one of the league's all-time great snipers; even still, his career shooting percentage is “just” 17.5. Thus, his shooting 20-plus percent for the rest of the year — until he got hurt, anyway — wasn't outside the realm of possibility, even if we could have expected him to slow down.
Steen's percentage, meanwhile, has only just recently edged to an even 10 percent for his career because he's added about one-sixth of his previous career goal total in the first 24 games this season. Again, it's fascinating to watch, in the way that one might observe a trainwreck in progress. The fact of the matter, as has been trumpeted by many observers in recent weeks, is that Steen is almost certainly going to set a new career high in goals. He might even pull into the mid-30s without too much difficulty — he's got 58 games remaining, after all — but this ride is coming to an end, and is likely to do so in the very near future.
That does not, however, mean the same thing as this being an entertaining race to see who will win the Rocket Richard this season.
To compare it to another sports analogy, this is like if a goodish, but not in any way outstanding, marathon runner sprinted as hard as he could at the sound of the starter's gun, and ran neck-and-neck with a multiple-time Boston Marathon winner for a few miles. There's no denying that he was up there, but at some point he's going to fall back to the pack of guys whose capabilities are more in line with his own, and maybe even end up a little behind them because of just how hard he went at the beginning of the race.
Ovechkin is that elite runner with whom Steen tried to keep pace, and who will eventually outstrip him and everyone else with the exact cold, calculating rhythm that has served him well over the years (2010-11 and 11-12 notwithstanding). The reason Ovechkin scores so many goals is not because he's lucky or he has an unsuitably high shooting percentage, nor is it a secret. It's the number of shots he takes. He turns shot volume up to 11, then breaks off the knob. He's led the league in shots on goal in literally every season he's been in the league but one, and that season he was still fifth. He was responsible three of the top-six all-time seasons for shots on goal.
This year is no different, as Ovechkin's taking getting 5.5 shots per game on net, and consequently shooting nearly 10 percentage points lower than Steen. The current 15.9 percent is still the highest shooting percentage of his career, but it's not, y'know, 2.5 times his career average. This is instead the second-highest shot volume on a per-game basis in Ovechkin's career, behind only the 6.68 per (!!!) in the season in which he netted 56.
No one in the league is close to Ovechkin in terms of shots per game, with Zach Parise and Evander Kane tied for second at just 4.3 a night. In fact, this is the fastest goalscoring pace by Ovechkin in his career, and he has 44 goals in his last 52 games. He's also just about the only reason the Capitals remain in the playoff conversation; he has more than a quarter of the team's goals all by himself. The only other contender is “The PatrickPlus sucks,” which is very true.
With Stamkos out long-term, the Rocket Richard is pretty much already decided unless something goes wrong for Ovechkin too. It's not even December and the only thing goalscoring aficionados can look forward to isn't “Who's going to win,” but rather, “How many goals will Ovechkin have?”
By that time, Alex Steen and his 20-goal start will almost certainly be a foggy memory.