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Alex Ovechkin’s Hand Rises From The Mud

Alex Ovechkin celebrates his goal
Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

For the Washington Capitals, it might be worth declaring "Mission accomplished" right now and riding out the rest of the year with no expectations. Entering the season as an aging team in decline, and dealing with injuries to some of their most famous players along the way, the Caps have nevertheless stockpiled enough good goalie performances to manufacture a playoff-caliber record through their first 35 games, even as their offensive output can only be viewed through a microscope. 18-11-6 might be the best it's going to get.

Anyway, it's not like this Capitals season was ever supposed to be about winning all that many games. No, all most people cared about was how many goals Alexander Ovechkin would tally in his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky's career record. He was 72 away to start the year, and for a guy who'd just scored 42, and 50 in a return-to-form the season before, it seemed as though Ovi might need just a couple more years to get to the mountaintop. But this season, at age 38, has been by a long shot his worst and least productive NHL year yet, even with plenty of ice time at his disposal. His body, managed with such intelligence over his career, finally looks like something approaching ordinary, and his supporting cast, formerly so apt at giving him space and the puck, is dullsville. The late-2023 version of Ovechkin was the scorer at his most diminished and easiest to stop, and after a mere six goals through his first 33 games, the math on beating the Great One became a whole lot more imposing.

But Ovi's last two outings have brought a quickening of the pace, as the Caps have snatched three points out of four to slow some ugly momentum and used a goal from him in each. First, in Nashville on Saturday, a vintage delivery to Ovechkin in his favorite spot during the last embers of a power play tied a game that Washington would take to a shootout and gave their fans a sight to savor.

Against Pittsburgh on Tuesday, to take a 4-0 lead in a game they held on to win 4-3, Ovi again made his mark on a first-period power play—this time on a less obvious shot, from a longer distance than usual. The Penguins crowd betrayed no excitement at witnessing this small piece of history, but it was neat and nostalgic to get Ovechkin's 830th in the same game where Sidney Crosby, still an artist on this ice, moved into 12th place all time on the NHL's points leaderboard. This is a rivalry that's circled its natural end for years now, but Sid, Sasha, and their respective teams are holding on tight.

"New year, new start,” Ovechkin said in the postgame. That might be wishful thinking, because it's hard to look at the Capitals' roster and feel like it's the beginning of something and not the end. But goals matter. A lot. And not just because the Caps rarely score them. Every Ovechkin goal makes a game worthwhile, because every goal brings him one step closer to what was thought impossible: a record taken from the consensus best ever, accomplished under much more difficult circumstances than any of the forwards who enjoyed the '80s faced. Given how Ovechkin manages his body, and the talent that's always burst from it, even a start this cold doesn't knock him out of the chase. He'll be skating to that left circle as long as he's able, and for as long as the occasional puck keeps breaking through, you can still believe.

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