Closing in on the Great One
The Washington Capitals have a locker room tradition to honor player milestones, led by Peter Laviolette, their coach. When someone records a notable assist or pots their first career goal, Laviolette announces it to the team and often hands out the puck to commemorate the moment.
With Alex Ovechkin, Laviolette can barely keep up.
“It’s to the point where I get handed a piece of paper after the game with a list of things he’s just done,” Laviolette said earlier this month, as Ovechkin shoots his way to the top of the most cherished record in hockey. “There was a game last week where we had five things and we threw one out, just because of the time. It’s unbelievable.”
Ovechkin, who turned 36 in September, has not only dominated his coach’s postgame speeches, he has captured the attention of the entire National Hockey League with an early outpouring of goals and assists to showcase that the rugged and supremely talented left winger is still as good as he ever was, still the Great 8.
He had 22 goals heading into the Christmas break, which began early when the N.H.L. paused play until next week because of the coronavirus.
Ovechkin is one goal behind league leader Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers, and his 25 assists put Ovechkin third in points behind Draisaitl and his Oilers teammate Connor McDavid, each of whom have 49. He is only the seventh player with 17 consecutive 20-goal seasons, and is on pace to score 58 goals, which would be the second-highest total of his remarkable 17-year career, and the third-highest tally for any player over age 30.
Ovechkin, with his trademark yellow skate laces, is only the seventh player with 17 consecutive 20-goal seasons.Credit…Jason Andrew for The New York Times
And most recently, Laviolette honored Ovechkin for tying Dave Andreychuk for the most career power play goals, 274.
But there is a grander list on which he ascends. This year, Ovechkin passed Marcel Dionne and Brett Hull on the career goals list. With 752, Ovechkin is only 15 goals from passing Jaromir Jagr for third place. From there, only Gordie Howe, with 801, and Wayne Gretzky’s 894 lie ahead.
“It’s not even a question that he will pass me, and I think it’s great,” Gretzky said in a telephone interview last week. “He’s well on his way to 40 or 50 goals this year, maybe more. There is no doubt that ultimately, he will break the record.”
On the surface, Gretzky and Ovechkin could not be more different. Gretzky was a slender vision on ice, the greatest playmaker of all time with his blond locks flowing out of his Jofa helmet, the winner of four Stanley Cups and nine Hart trophies as the most valuable player, all while racking up incomprehensible point totals for teams in five cities.
Ovechkin, with his shaggy, graying mane, his gaptoothed smile, boisterous persona and linebacker frame (he is every bit of his 6-3, 240 pounds) is a more direct force, whose bruising, power style and sizzling slap shot helped him accrue three Hart trophies and a Stanley Cup, all in one adoring city, — and made him one of the most feared opponents in the game.
“He has an aura on the ice,” said T.J. Oshie, Ovechkin’s teammate on the Capitals. “He’s like a shark out there.”
In that sense, Ovechkin and Gretzky are quite similar; each with an unparalleled competitive drive and understanding for what it takes to get a puck past a goalie. Five years ago, the two went to dinner at Nobu in Malibu, along with their wives, a hockey summit arranged by Sergey Kocharov, the Capitals vice president of communications, who also worked with Gretzky when both were with the Phoenix Coyotes.
During the meal, Ovechkin peppered Gretzky with questions.
“What I found really nice was that he wasn’t asking me about scoring goals — he doesn’t need to ask anyone about that,” Gretzky said. “He wanted to know about getting his team over the line to win the Stanley Cup. It was refreshing.”
The odd couple remain in contact and Gretzky, like many hockey fans, regularly tunes in to Capitals games because of his appreciation for Ovechkin. If Ovechkin goes a few games without scoring, Gretzky sends supportive texts, reminding the sturdy Russian that the goals will come, and sometimes in bunches.
“I’m his biggest fan,” said Gretzky, whose 2,857 career points put him 936 ahead of Jagr in second place and 1,490 ahead of Ovechkin.
But the career goal record, much like the home run record in baseball, is among the most cherished and easily identifiable markers in sports. Gretzky’s mark of 894 was once considered insurmountable. But Ovechkin could soar past 900.
When asked about it, Ovechkin usually says that “one never knows” what will happen tomorrow. But that insatiable craving to score has fueled him since he was a boy. When he was 12 and playing in the Russian juniors for Dynamo Moscow, Ovechkin went into the final game of that season with 53 goals.
“Before the game my father told me that Pavel Bure held the record with 57 goals,” Ovechkin recalled, then flashed his famous smile. “I scored six goals and finished with 59. You never know.”
Ovechkin has led the N.H.L. in goals a record nine times. Many of his tallies have come via his ballistic slap shot and one-timers, but others through wrist shots, tap-ins, backhands, deft stickhandling maneuvers and even one crazy backhander, over his head, while sliding on his back, against Gretzky’s Coyotes, followed by one of his signature, exuberant celebrations.
“I’ve always loved to score goals,” Ovechkin said. “I remember when I was a little kid, I loved the competition to see where you were at in the standings, goals, assists, points, whatever.”
But setting him apart from all the other greats, Ovechkin is perhaps the most physical elite scorer the game has seen. He is willing to check and be checked, like Howe and Brett Hull, but Ovechkin sometimes seeks it out.
Of the top goal scorers since 2005-06, the year he barged into the league after being drafted No. 1 in 2004 (what should have been his rookie season was canceled by a lockout), Ovechkin not only has 200 more goals than Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal and Evgeni Malkin, he has well over 2,000 more career hits than any of them. (According to the NHL Network’s statistics, Ovechkin had over 3,160 hits through November, and none of the others had even 1,000).
He has 42 hits this season, as many as his scoring rivals McDavid and Draisaitl combined.
Oshie recalled how he once bore the brunt of a crushing Ovechkin check when Oshie played for the St. Louis Blues, comparing it to being hit by a truck.
“There’s a number of great goal scorers in the league,” he said. “None of them hits like Ovi does. It’s what makes him so great. He’s a monster.”
As a teammate, Oshie feels Ovechkin’s physicality in other ways. There are the pregame chest bumps in the hallway, when the loud, gregarious winger ramps up for the game. The more dangerous moments for his teammates come when one of them scores.
“He hugged me so hard once, I was like, ‘OK, I need to see the trainer,” Oshie said. “He’s like a two-year-old puppy that doesn’t know how big he is.”
Ovechkin no longer flies across the rink razing defensemen as often as he once did. Now, he picks his spots. In a recent game against Chicago, the Capitals were lethargic until Ovechkin flattened Connor Murphy early in the second period, changing the momentum. During the intermission, Laviolette informed the team that if their superstar could be that physical, everyone else could do the same.
“That looked like the old Ovi,” Laviolette said. “He still brings it when we need it.”
But Ovechkin has a refined side, too. Gretzky compares him to his old teammate, Mark Messier, and to the quarterback Tom Brady and the tennis legend Roger Federer, veteran superstars who maintained their success into their later 30s and beyond through up-to-date nutrition and training regimens, combined with a relentless competitive drive.
“I’ve never seen anyone the hunger he has with the puck,” said Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin’s longtime line mate, who has assisted on 269 (35.8 percent) of his goals. “It doesn’t matter if he gets it in his own zone, neutral zone, anywhere. He’s thinking, ‘I’m scoring,’ which is unique.”
Ovechkin says he is “very lucky” to have played so long with Backstrom and other talented teammates, like Evgeny Kuznetsov. Backstrom and Ovechkin have been together for 14 years — including 19 games for Dynamo Moscow during the 2012-13 N.H.L lockout — enough that they know where the other one will be almost all the time, on or off the ice.
“Well, if I don’t see him somewhere, I’ll hear him,” quipped Backstrom, who also noted Ovechkin’s ability to be in the right spot.
Watching Ovechkin find those spots without the puck is a study in hockey geometry, bringing to mind Oshie’s shark imagery. His short, precise movements — side to side, forward and back — just to find even an extra inch of space — can be the difference in getting off a lethal shot.
Brian MacLellan, the Capitals general manager, says that this year, Ovechkin has elevated his already uncanny sense of the play and how it will develop.
“He’s the smartest he’s ever been in the offensive zone,” MacLellan said. “It’s an intelligent game he’s playing. He’s evolved from powering goals in, to what he’s doing now.”
Of Ovechkin’s 22 goals this year, only two have come via his signature one-timer — a massive slap shot taken directly off a pass, usually from the left face-off circle to the goalie’s right, an area on the ice commonly known as Ovechkin’s “office.” Eleven have come off wrist shots and four on snap shots.
Sometimes, though, it is less about calculations, tactics and vision. If a young player were to ask Ovechkin for the secret formula to scoring goals by the hundreds, he offers unsurprisingly direct advice.
“Shoot the puck,” Ovechkin said, smiling.
As hard as you can?
Ovechkin has carved out a Hall of Fame career doing that, making it hard for goalies, and for a coach trying to keep track of it all, with no end in sight.