Back in 1944-45 when Maurice "The Rocket" Richard became the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals, accomplishing the feat in 50 games, few thought the feat would ever be matched, let alone improved upon.
For more than three decades Richard's 50 in 50 went unequalled, but from the 1970s onward the game got increasingly wide open, and players like Phil Esposito and Guy Lafleur routinely eclipsed the 50 goal mark, though neither managed to accomplish the feat as quickly as Richard had.
In 1980-81 a young sniper by the name of Mike Bossy finally ended Richard's exclusive status in the 50 in 50 club. Playing for the powerhouse New York Islanders, Bossy sniped his 50th goal in his 50th game to exactly equal the mark Richard had set so many years before. However, Bossy wouldn't have nearly as long as Richard did to enjoy the record. Another young superstar named Wayne Gretzky shattered Richard's and Bossy's shared record the following year. In the 1981-82 season Gretzky stunned the hockey world when he reached 50 goals before the halfway point of the regular season, scoring 5 goals in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers to hit the mark in 39 games. For a time he was on pace to score 100 goals! He would cool off (slightly) in the second half of the season, but would still crush Phil Esposito's record of 76 goals in a single season, finishing with 92.
Since Gretzky's record-setting season, two more players have also joined the 50 in 50 club - Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull (twice) both scored 50 in 50 games or less.
*** Note: The players listed above all scored 50 in their team's first 50 games of the season. Cam Neely, Jari Kurri, Alexander Mogilny and Lemieux (twice more) all scored 50 goals in the first 50 games they played in (games missed due to injury).
A few years back, when Alexander Ovechkin scored 65 goals in a single season there was speculation that the Russian sniper could accomplish the rare feat. However, the following two seasons saw his goal production drop - first to 56 and then to 50, and the rumbling died out.
Today, NHL media and fans have a new potential 50 in 50 man. Former #1 overall draft pick Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning has quickly developed into the game's most feared sniper. Last season - only his second in the NHL - Stamkos scored 51 goals, tying him with Sidney Crosby for the league lead in goals. This season Stamkos is well on his way to crushing that total. Through just 21 games Stamkos already has 20 goals. Playing on a line with the talented Martin St. Louis there is little reason to believe his goal scoring with tail off anytime soon.
Though he has a multitude of tools at his disposal, Stamkos' number one weapon is undeniably his wicked one-timer. He is a fixture on the left side boards on Tampa Bay's powerplay, and it is clear that the main priority of the rest of the Lightning's players is to feed the puck to Stamkos so he can unleash that deadly cannon. Amazingly, despite the fact that defenders overplay to his side, goaltenders are prepared for the shot, and in most cases Stamkos is at a relatively poor angle when he shoots, he manages to consistently score, picking a corner and ripping the puck into the mesh before the goaltender can so much as wave at the puck. Watching replays of Stamkos' work on the powerplay is very reminiscent of watching Brett Hull - one of the greatest goal scorers of all time - in the prime of his career.
If Stamkos can keep up the pace the pressure is only going to ramp up. It will be interesting to see if the 20 year old star will thrive under that pressure or crumble under it. Those other stars had the eyes of the hockey world upon them when they accomplished the feat, but with the explosion of the internet and mobile media over the past decade or so the game - and its players - has never been so scrutinized. Stamkos will be under the microscope right until that 50th game if he is still in the hunt at that point.
And if he doesn't manage to hit the mark? Fans will be disappointed, to be sure. But, as I mentioned above, this guy is only 20 years old. He'll have plenty of chances to try again. Who knows, maybe not even Gretzky's 50 in 39 mark is safe.