Closing In on the Great One


The Washington Capitals have a locker room custom to honor participant milestones, led by Peter Laviolette, their coach. When somebody information a notable help or pots their first profession purpose, Laviolette publicizes it to the workforce and infrequently arms out the puck to commemorate the second.

With Alex Ovechkin, Laviolette can barely sustain.

“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 stated earlier this month, as Ovechkin shoots his approach to the prime of the most cherished document 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 solely dominated his coach’s postgame speeches, he has captured the consideration of the whole National Hockey League with an early outpouring of objectives and assists to showcase that the rugged and supremely gifted left winger remains to be nearly as good as he ever was, nonetheless the Great 8.

He had 22 objectives heading into the Christmas break, which started early when the N.H.L. paused play till subsequent week due to the coronavirus.

Ovechkin is one purpose behind league chief Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers, and his 25 assists put Ovechkin third in factors behind Draisaitl and his Oilers teammate Connor McDavid, every of whom have 49. He is simply the seventh participant with 17 consecutive 20-goal seasons, and is on tempo to attain 58 objectives, which might be the second-highest complete of his exceptional 17-year profession, and the third-highest tally for any participant over age 30.

And most not too long ago, Laviolette honored Ovechkin for tying Dave Andreychuk for the most career power play goals, 274.

But there’s a grander list on which he ascends. This yr, Ovechkin handed Marcel Dionne and Brett Hull on the profession objectives listing. With 752, Ovechkin is simply 15 objectives from passing Jaromir Jagr for third place. From there, solely Gordie Howe, with 801, and Wayne Gretzky’s 894 lie forward.

“It’s not even a question that he will pass me, and I think it’s great,” Gretzky stated in a phone interview final week. “He’s well on his way to 40 or 50 goals this year, maybe more.
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There is no doubt that ultimately, he will break the record.”

On the floor, Gretzky and Ovechkin couldn’t be extra completely different. Gretzky was a slender imaginative and prescient on ice, the best playmaker of all time along with his blond locks flowing out of his Jofa helmet, the winner of 4 Stanley Cups and 9 Hart trophies as the Most worthy participant, all whereas racking up incomprehensible level totals for groups in 5 cities.

Ovechkin, along with his shaggy, graying mane, his gaptoothed smile, boisterous persona and linebacker body (he’s each little bit of his 6-3, 240 kilos) is a extra direct pressure, whose bruising, energy fashion and scorching slap shot helped him accrue three Hart trophies and a Stanley Cup, multi function adoring metropolis, — and made him one in every of the most feared opponents in the game.

“He has an aura on the ice,” stated T.J. Oshie, Ovechkin’s teammate on the Capitals. “He’s like a shark out there.”

In that sense, Ovechkin and Gretzky are fairly comparable; every with an unparalleled aggressive drive and understanding for what it takes to get a puck previous a goalie. Five years in the past, the two went to dinner at Nobu in Malibu, together with their wives, a hockey summit organized by Sergey Kocharov, the Capitals vp of communications, who additionally labored with Gretzky when each have been 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 stated. “He wanted to know about getting his team over the line to win the Stanley Cup. It was refreshing.”

The odd couple stay involved and Gretzky, like many hockey followers, recurrently tunes in to Capitals video games due to his appreciation for Ovechkin. If Ovechkin goes a couple of video games with out scoring, Gretzky sends supportive texts, reminding the sturdy Russian that the objectives will come, and typically in bunches.

“I’m his biggest fan,” stated Gretzky, whose 2,857 profession factors put him 936 forward of Jagr in second place and 1,490 forward of Ovechkin.

But the profession purpose document, very like the house run document in baseball, is amongst the most cherished and simply identifiable markers in sports activities. Gretzky’s mark of 894 was as soon as thought-about insurmountable. But Ovechkin might soar previous 900.

When requested about it, Ovechkin often says that “one never knows” what is going to occur tomorrow. But that insatiable craving to attain has fueled him since he was a boy. When he was 12 and enjoying in the Russian juniors for Dynamo Moscow, Ovechkin went into the last game of that season with 53 objectives.

“Before the game my father told me that Pavel Bure held the record with 57 goals,” Ovechkin recalled, then flashed his well-known smile. “I scored six goals and finished with 59. You never know.”

Ovechkin has led the N.H.L. in objectives a document 9 instances. Many of his tallies have come by way of his ballistic slap shot and one-timers, however others by means of wrist photographs, tap-ins, backhands, deft stickhandling maneuvers and even one loopy backhander, over his head, whereas sliding on his back, in opposition to Gretzky’s Coyotes, adopted by one in every of his signature, exuberant celebrations.

“I’ve always loved to score goals,” Ovechkin stated. “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 other than all the different greats, Ovechkin is maybe the most bodily elite scorer the game has seen. He is keen to examine and be checked, like Howe and Brett Hull, however Ovechkin typically seeks it out.

Of the prime purpose scorers since 2005-06, the yr he barged into the league after being drafted No. 1 in 2004 (what ought to have been his rookie season was canceled by a lockout), Ovechkin not solely has 200 extra objectives than Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal and Evgeni Malkin, he has effectively over 2,000 extra profession hits than any of them. (According to the NHL Network’s statistics, Ovechkin had over 3,160 hits by means of 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 mixed.

Oshie recalled how he as soon as bore the brunt of a crushing Ovechkin examine when Oshie performed for the St. Louis Blues, evaluating it to being hit by a truck.

“There’s a number of great goal scorers in the league,” he stated. “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 different methods. There are the pregame chest bumps in the hallway, when the loud, gregarious winger ramps up for the game. The extra harmful moments for his teammates come when one in every of them scores.

“He hugged me so hard once, I was like, ‘OK, I need to see the trainer,” Oshie stated. “He’s like a two-year-old puppy that doesn’t know how big he is.”

Ovechkin now not flies throughout the rink razing defensemen as typically as he as soon as did. Now, he picks his spots. In a current game in opposition to Chicago, the Capitals have been torpid till Ovechkin flattened Connor Murphy early in the second interval, altering the momentum. During the intermission, Laviolette knowledgeable the workforce that if their celebrity might be that bodily, everybody else might do the identical.

“That looked like the old Ovi,” Laviolette stated. “He still brings it when we need it.”

But Ovechkin has a refined facet, too. Gretzky compares him to his previous 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 past by means of up-to-date diet and coaching regimens, mixed with a relentless aggressive drive.

“I’ve never seen anyone the hunger he has with the puck,” stated Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin’s longtime line mate, who has assisted on 269 (35.Eight %) of his objectives. “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’s “very lucky” to have performed so lengthy with Backstrom and different gifted teammates, like Evgeny Kuznetsov. Backstrom and Ovechkin have been collectively for 14 years — together with 19 video games for Dynamo Moscow throughout the 2012-13 N.H.L lockout — sufficient that they know the place the different one will likely be virtually all the time, on or off the ice.

“Well, if I don’t see him somewhere, I’ll hear him,” quipped Backstrom, who additionally famous Ovechkin’s potential to be in the proper spot.

Watching Ovechkin discover these spots with out the puck is a research in hockey geometry, bringing to thoughts Oshie’s shark imagery. His quick, exact actions — facet to facet, ahead and again — simply to seek out even an additional inch of area — might be the distinction in getting off a deadly shot.

Brian MacLellan, the Capitals basic supervisor, says that this yr, Ovechkin has elevated his already uncanny sense of the play and the way it will develop.

“He’s the smartest he’s ever been in the offensive zone,” MacLellan stated. “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 objectives this yr, solely two have come by way of his signature one-timer — an enormous slap shot taken immediately off a cross, often from the left face-off circle to the goalie’s proper, an space on the ice generally referred to as Ovechkin’s “office.” Eleven have come off wrist photographs and 4 on snap photographs.

Sometimes, although, it’s much less about calculations, ways and imaginative and prescient. If a younger participant have been to ask Ovechkin for the secret method to scoring objectives by the a whole lot, he provides unsurprisingly direct recommendation.

“Shoot the puck,” Ovechkin stated, smiling.

As arduous as you may?

“Yup.”

Ovechkin has carved out a Hall of Fame profession doing that, making it arduous for goalies, and for a coach making an attempt to maintain monitor of all of it, endlessly.



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