In the same way that 1940s baseball players have hypothetical additions to their counting stats because of time missed due to World War II, so too will we have to consider how high Alexander Ovechkin would have climbed on the NHL’s all-time goals leaderboard were it not for COVID-19. Ovi had been remarkably durable over the course of his Washington Capitals career, only once missing more than four games in a season from 2005 to 2019. But of course, in 2020, the Caps’ year was called off with 14 games to spare, and then in early 2021, in a season already cut short by 26 games, Ovechkin had to miss 11 more due to a combination of COVID protocols and late-season load management.
Conservatively, with a goal rate of one every 1.6 games over the past three seasons, that’s a loss of at least 25 goals. While the odds have never really been in the 36-year-old’s favor that he would get within striking distance of the Great One’s 894 all-time (he’s 162 away as of this writing), it was still somewhat deflating to see late-prime Ovechkin unable to at least attempt a challenge under ideal conditions (and, more pressingly, make an all-out chase for Gordie Howe’s still-legendary 801).
Even if the long-term viability of Ovechkin’s pursuit has been harmed, perhaps irreparably, it was still a joy to see him return so easily to his scoring-freak ways as soon as the puck dropped on Washington’s season. On Wednesday night, in a 5-1 win over the Rangers, Ovi stepped on the ice in a competitive game for the first time in about five months and found the net twice (with two assists to boot). In doing so, he not only extended his now 731-goal lead over Capitals teenager Hendrix Lapierre on the all-time list, but he also passed the L.A. Kings legend Marcel Dionne to take sole possession of fifth place. Ovechkin will likely soon eclipse Brett Hull, who is now nine goals away at 741, and he could even catch Jaromir Jagr at 766 before the end of the year, leaving him among nobody but the sport’s purest immortals.
But those dreams can wait for future blogs. What really matters is the way Ovechkin played last night in the win. First, he was a key factor in building up the Capitals’ lead, making a cross-ice pass for a T.J. Oshie goal in the first period and then getting a secondary assist (while serving as a dangerous decoy) for Justin Schultz’s power-play goal in the second. With the score 3-0 in the third period, Ovechkin’s season truly began, as he pounced on a rebound during a Caps power play and ruthlessly sent it past Alexandar Georgiev for No. 731.
If you could chalk that one up to a bit of right place/right time, the next one left no doubt about the greatness of the man you were watching. In the dying seconds of a 4-on-4, Ovechkin hustled like a fourth-liner to chase down a dump-in from Evgeny Kuznetsov, and when he arrived at the puck, he was all of a sudden in a lethal position to score. Without hesitation, he made a delicious move to his backhand. The rest was history.
“Sometimes I think you take for granted how often he scores,” Oshie said afterward. “But I saw the number of the goals [on the video board]. I feel like it’s been a while since I looked up and saw the actual number he was at. That’s a lot of goals. There’s a lot of really good players that never reach that many games. It doesn’t get old, and it really is special to be here for these milestones, to be his teammate for these milestones.
“I joke around with him that I’m going to tell my grandkids that I played with the Great 8. We’re joking around, but it’s definitely true. It’s really an honor to be there while he’s passing these legends of our game.”
It feels like this has been said every year I’ve been alive, but the Capitals are getting old. Their top four contributors by points last year—Ovi, Oshie, John Carlson, and Nick Backstrom—are all solidly on the wrong side of 30, and even the production of younger guys like Lapierre and Anthony Mantha might only serve to somewhat cancel out the effects of aging. Backstrom is already set to be out a bunch of games with a hip issue, and Ovechkin was far from a sure thing to even play last night after he picked up a knock in the preseason finale.
Again and again, as they’ve either won or tied for the division lead in points every year since 2016, the Capitals have defied the expectations set by time. Rational thinking would tell you that this is the year they finally get dragged down, maybe to being a fringe playoff team or even on the outside if younger squads like the Devils and Rangers can step it up. And maybe that’s still true! You can’t and shouldn’t draw major conclusions from just one game in October. But for three periods of Capitals hockey, Ovechkin and company made time stop.