It all rests on Alex Ovechkin ... again.
Only he can save the NHL from going without a 50-goal scorer for the first time in a full season in the salary-cap era.
"Well, I wouldn't be surprised if Ovi ripped off eight goals in the last however many games they have left,'' Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said Monday over the phone, a day before Ovechkin notched No. 43 against the Ottawa Senators.
"That's very true," echoed Ducks star winger Corey Perry on Wednesday, when relayed Stamkos' confidence in Ovechkin getting it done.
Maybe Ovechkin will do it again. He needs seven goals in his final 10 games. One should never bet against the Russian goal machine.
But if he doesn't, the specter of the NHL's first full season without a 50-goal scorer since 2003-04 -- aka the Dead Puck Era -- certainly underlines what everyone has known for a while: It's hard to score goals in this league.
"It's definitely tougher," said Stamkos, fourth in the NHL with 34 goals. "There's a few factors. The goalies are so good. I know there's this big equipment debate, but I just think the goalies are that much better. And look at the size of them now, the quickness, they're some of the best athletes in the sport. That plays a big role in it with how technical and athletic they are, it's tough to score on them."
It's precisely where Perry also began when asked for his take.
"I think you have to start with the goalies," said Perry, who scored his 30th goal of the season Tuesday night against the Montreal Canadiens. "They're bigger, more athletic, they're challenging more because they can get back and get that rebound if it goes to the side; that's where I am on it."
What's interesting is that neither star player is saying the goalies are the No. 1 factor in the offensive decline because they're cheating or because of the equipment; they're both complimenting the position because of its evolution.
Where Stamkos and Perry have a slight difference of opinion is in the proposed goalie equipment changes potentially coming for next season, with the upper body and pants area streamlined and contoured so as to create a bit more space for shooters.
Tampa Bay Lightning's Ben Bishop is among the goalies supporting the league and NHLPA in the proposed changes. Just how much of an impact it would actually have though in terms of creating more goals is the debate.
"I've talked to Bish briefly about that," Stamkos said of the proposed goalie equipment changes. "I think he's gone on record as saying it doesn't even look like that big of a difference."
In Stamkos' view, the goalies are so good they'll adjust quickly.
But Perry figures perhaps it might have enough of an impact.
"It could open some more holes, the pants if they're curved, it could hit their pants and go in, just little things," Perry said. "I don't know if it's going to work, but you might as well try it. I'm kind of for it."
This isn't all about the goalies, however. There are other reasons we've seen scoring go down steadily over the past several years.
"The checking is tighter, everyone is playing that trap game, third man high and not too many odd-man rushes, especially in the West, anyways," Perry said. "When you're not scoring goals, you've got to keep them out of your net, that's the philosophy on our team."
It's exactly where Stamkos also went with his analysis.
"You put in the factor how in-depth teams are going with making sure you're playing defensive structures, making sure you're blocking shots, making sure you're backchecking, the back-pressure, it's all geared towards not allowing the other teams to score goals," Stamkos said.
"You look at the correlation with the old cliché of defense wins championships; well, the teams with the lowest goals-against average in the past couple of years have won the Stanley Cup. ... You look at last year with our run, we were able to keep the puck out of our net. This year we're a top-three team in that area. That's the emphasis for a lot of teams. And that's not taking away anything, that's just the way it is now. You have to play well in defensive situations to be a team that competes especially in the playoffs. That's the emphasis now even more so than when I first came into the league, for sure."
Stamkos has twice eclipsed the 50-goal barrier, including scoring 60 in 2011-12. Perry scored 50 goals in 2010-11.
Both remain among the top scorers in the league; it's just that the standard has changed a bit. There might only be three or four 40-goal scorers this season, never mind 50.
"Even points-wise, even Patrick Kane needs to go a point a game I think to get to 100," Stamkos said of the NHL points leader who has 92 points with eight games remaining. "Everyone thought at the beginning he might get 120, 130 points."
The NHL was averaging 5.1 goals per game in 2004 before changes were made to the game after the lockout. Through Tuesday night's games, the average this season is at 5.3 goals per game (not counting shootout-deciding goals).
The difference, however, is that few people believe the product itself is like 2004, even if the goal totals are similar.
"No, because of the speed and size of everybody now, I think it's entertaining," Perry said.
Still, how many 2-on-1 breaks do you see in a game these days?
"You're lucky if you see one or two," Perry said. "It's not happening as much anymore, that's for sure."
Stamkos said if you're on the ice giving up a 2-on-1 break, you'll certainly hear about it in the video session the next day, reinforcing the notion of how teams in today's NHL focus on a defensive philosophy.
"That's just the reality," Stamkos said. "As an offensive guy, I'd love to score 40, 50, 60 goals every year. It's tough. And teams do a good job of focusing on certain guys when you're playing against them, or certain positions on the power play, things like that."
Last week, general managers at their annual meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, debated little changes like letting a two-minute power play go its entirety even if a goal was scored, or not allowing short-handed teams to ice the puck with impunity. None of the ideas were pushed forward, the focus instead being on goalie equipment.
But those ideas, when relayed to Stamkos, had merit.
"I think over time little things like that do add up," Stamkos said. "For as hard as we've tried the last couple of years to promote offense, teams adjust."
Perry seemed less enthused by those ideas.
"You don't want to mess with the game too much is kind of my theory, you know what I mean?" Perry said.
The game isn't boring. But the days of multiple 50-goal scorers? That might be a thing of the past.
"I think we have to come to reality," Perry said. "Everybody is bigger, faster and stronger. The goalies are bigger, faster, stronger; there's not a whole lot of room out there anymore. It's tight checking, defense first."