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Stamkos following the Big M’s path; when 48 wasn’t 50 but still pretty good

Most of us would acknowledge that Steven Stamkos is one of the premier young players in the NHL.  In fact, through the first half of the 20010-’11 season (after a tremendous sophomore season), he was widely thought to be the “next big thing”, emerging as he was as perhaps the most dynamic offensive performer in the game.

It looked like 60 goals was well within reach, 50 without question.  He was “on pace”, as we like to say, to capture the “Rocket” Richard Trophy, awarded to the guy who scores the most goals in the regular season.

Then came what looked like a normal mini-slump.  But that turned into a legitimate drought.  And to a certain extent, it has carried on into the playoffs.  Stamkos did score two in Game 5 against the under-manned Penguins, and added another in Game 1 versus the Caps.  But he hasn’t shown the consistent finishing touch he did earlier on the season.  Fatigue?  Pressure?  Bad luck?

Whatever it is, Lightning fans need not worry.  This young man is too good, and will be a difference-maker for years to come. Just watching him in the playoffs, as he becomes more and more comfortable, you can see the quality in his play.

It’s hard for someone of my age (pushing 60), when reflecting on Stamkos’ season, not to think of a another powerful young winger who went through something very similar on his way to superstardom 50 years ago.

That winger was former Maple Leaf left-winger, Hall-of-Famer Frank Mahovlich.       

When I first started following hockey in the late 1950’s, a 50-goal season wasn’t just unusual, it had only happened one time in the history of the NHL, which dated back to about 1917.

The individual who accomplished the feat was the aforementioned Maurice Richard, in the 1944-’45 season.  Some considered that record-breaking year somewhat tarnished, though, as Richard accomplished the feat while some players were fighting in World War II, but the record had nonetheless stood as special.  No one had ever approached that figure before in the league’s history, and no one matched the 50-goal plateau for years afterwards.

Gordie Howe had come close one season, in 1952-‘53.  But he stalled on 49, unable to score at home against Richard and the Canadiens on the last day of the regular season. (Ironically, a goal he scored earlier in the season was not credited to Howe. He didn’t make a fuss about it, but that’s a story for another day…)

When the 1960-’61 season rolled around, there was no particular suggestion that Richard’s record was about to be challenged.  But a young player with the Leafs, the  then 22 year-old Mahovlich, was scoring at a steady clip as the season wore on.

I remember as a youngster having the impression that Mahovlich was scoring almost every game, although that wasn’t really true, of course.  But he was on fire.  The hockey world and the sports pages (though nothing like it is today) were full of coverage on the “Big M’s”, as he was called, pursuit of the seemingly unassailable record. (Mahovlich is shown at right in early 1960s action against the Hawks- Glenn Hall, "Moose" Vasko and Pierre Pilote are with him.  I think that's former Leaf center Billy Harris in the background.)

Now, Richard had scored his 50 goals in only 50 games.  But again, many considered his record a bit tainted, because of the diluted caliber of play in wartime. Still, Richard was a legend, having finished his legendary Montreal career with 544 regular-season goals, the all-time record.

By 60-’61, the NHL had long moved to a full 70-game schedule, and in February, it looked as though Mahovlich, just turned 23, was an almost sure bet to catch and pass the 50-goal mark.

However, as often happens, (as it did with Stamkos this season)  Mahovlich stalled—perhaps in part because his regular center, the slick-passing “Red” Kelly, suffered an injury in early March which kept him out of action until the playoffs.

The pressure must have been enormous, particularly on such a young player in a market like Toronto.  Mahovlich added a goal here and there in February and March, but in the meantime, Montreal’s “Boom Boom” Geoffrion went on a roll.  He blitzed past Mahovlich and scored number 50 himself against the Leafs and goalie Cesare Maniago on the last Wednesday or Thursday night of the regular season in Montreal, as I recall.

I remember that Mahovlich scored goal number 48 in his last home game that season against Boston on a Saturday night (in fact, I recently saw the goal on ‘Leafs Classics’ on Leafs TV…a beauty).

The Leafs had one more game on Sunday night in the cramped confines of tiny Madison Square Garden in New York (I say cramped and tiny because the old MSG was a much smaller ice surface than Detroit, Montreal and Toronto in those days).  Mahovlich didn’t score, though the team was well aware of the record and line mates were trying to set him up.

It was a disappointing end to a great season for a rising young star, exacerbated by the fact that the Leafs just missed finishing in first place and then went down rather quickly in the playoffs that spring in 5 games against Detroit.

Mahovlich came close once again to 50-goals in the late ‘60s when he played with the Red Wings on a line with fellow future Hall-of-Famers Alex Delvecchio and Gordie Howe.  But again he missed the mark, though just by one, as he finished with 49.

By then, unfortunately, 50 goals did not quite have quite the luster it did when Frank first challenged the Rocket’s amazing record.  Bobby Hull had scored 50 once, and had actually passed 50 on three other occasions.  Expansion led to a watered-down league and a scoring boom in the early ‘70s which saw Phil Esposito net 76 goals during the 1970-’71 season.

More than small consolation for not scoring 50, however, Mahovlich had a wonderful career- outstanding, really.  He helped the Leafs win those four Cups in the ‘60s and was vital to the Habs winning two more in the early 1970s.

But for many of us then young Leaf fans, Mahovlich’s big year in 1960-’61 was a special time, as he chased a seemingly unreachable record—when the number “50” really meant something in hockey.

And the way the game is played today, when Stamkos hits the 50-goal mark (and he will) it will mean something special, too.

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