Let’s not confuse this with McGwire versus Sosa. Or Affirmed and Alydar. Or Ali-Frazier.
The battle between Patric Hornqvist and Mike Fisher to be the Nashville Predators’ leading goal scorer this season has done nothing to captivate the country, let alone the world. It’s not something that will change the game or make fans out of those who otherwise would not pay attention.
It is, however, as competitive as some of the most compelling sports rivalries of all time. Throughout March, the two kept pace with each other in a manner that makes it almost impossible to predict who ultimately will prevail when Nashville concludes the 2011-12 regular season Saturday at Colorado.
Either way, the Predators — nearing the end of one of their best offensive seasons — win.
“I don’t think either of us cares, really,” Hornqvist said. “We’re here to try to get two points for the team every single night, and it doesn’t matter who scores. It’s fun to score, but we don’t really talk about it.”
With five games to play, Hornqvist had 25 goals, one more than Fisher. At that point, both exceeded Sergei Kostitsyn’s team-high total of 23 from the 2010-11 season.
Their battle helped keep Nashville among the NHL’s top 10 in goals per game at a time when most teams typically turn up the defensive intensity.
“It seems like we’ve been going back and forth a little bit,” Fisher said. “He’s done a great job, played really well and scored some big goals for us. It’s just been one of those things that — who knows, but it doesn’t really matter at this point.”
One or the other — and sometimes both — scored in each of the first nine games in March, which began with the pair tied at 18 goals apiece. Fisher drew first blood when he got No. 19 in a 3-1 victory over Florida on March 3. Hornqvist answered with a pair three days later and the battle was joined in earnest.
What made it more interesting — not to mention beneficial — was the fact that the two played on separate lines almost all of the time.
“If they keep scoring, then we should keep winning,” defenseman and captain Shea Weber said. “Without a doubt, our top line [with Fisher] has been excellent since the [All-Star] break. Now we’ve got two lines going, and it makes us that much tougher to stop.”
This is not the first time the franchise has had a close race in this regard. In fact, the first two seasons following the lockout Nashville had co-leaders in goals. Steve Sullivan and Paul Kariya each scored 31 in 2005-06, and Jason Arnott and David Legwand had 27 each the following year.
Those races lacked any sort of sustained, head-to-head drama, though. Sullivan missed the final nine games of the 2005-06 regular season with an injury, and Kariya scored four goals, including a hat trick in the final contest, over that stretch. The next year, Arnott had a lead but scored three times in the final 13 contests while Legwand closed with a flourish of five goals in the final five games.
More recently, Arnott’s 33 in 2008-09 were 10 more than any other Nashville player, 13 more than any other forward.
Hornqvist had nine more than any of his teammates when he scored 30 in 2009-10. That same season Fisher led the Ottawa Senators with 25, his career-high prior to this season.
Now, in their first full season as teammates, they have gone at it as if there could be just one winner. As a result, the opposition can’t target just one player and think it can shut down the Predators’ attack.
“That’s huge for us,” Hornqvist said. “The top two lines have to produce, and the other two lines have to shut the other [teams’] top two lines down. That’s exactly what they do, too. You can’t give just our top two lines credit. You have to give all the lines credit.”
His point is well taken. Even with such an entertaining scoring race, defense remains the team’s calling card, and it’s likely that the Hornqvist-Fisher battle was little more than a blip around the league. At the start of play Thursday, a total of 41 players on 23 different teams had 26 goals or more.
“The reason they’re leading us in goals is that they both go to the dirty areas, the hard areas where there’s lots of traffic and lots of bodies,” coach Barry Trotz said. “That’s how you score in the league now.”
Stylistic difference is one element of classic rivalries that is lacking in this case. Fisher and Hornqvist both play a physical game and score most of their goals from in close, either on rebounds, deflections or scramble plays.
Hornqvist does have a sizable edge in power play goals (8-5) but Fisher balances that out with the advantage in game-winners (7-3).
“Anytime the team’s playing well — a lot of guys are having good years as well,” Fisher said. “It’s one of those things that I don’t think really matters for us.”
Yet they’ve gone about it as if so much more is at stake.