The Caps Have Ovi Left To Play For
12:41 PM EST on March 7, 2023
Alex Ovechkin would be a hockey legend even if he'd scored, like, 300 fewer goals. But now at 816 for his career, he might be closer to a savant. There's simply no other way to last 18 years and 1,334 games through the physical demands of the NHL while remaining your team's most important player that entire time. Even at age 37, the three dozen goals he's scored in 60 games puts him on the edge of the league's top 10, neck and neck with youths like Jack Hughes and Jason Robertson. Physically, he can't compare with those guys anymore, but Ovi is still in the company of the game's best, not only because he has a preternatural understanding of the fun stuff like scoring and hitting, but also because he possesses a deep acquired knowledge of how this game takes a toll on his body, and how best to mitigate it.
Both that brand of late-career greatness and the challenges facing his late-career Capitals were on display as Washington traveled to L.A. Monday night. The Caps, as a team, badly need some positive momentum after a February dominated by losses and injury woes. (Ovechkin took a rare bit of time away in that month due to the death of his father.) GM Brian MacLellan, however, sees it differently. Staring down the inevitable rebuild of the oldest team in the league, which hasn't won a playoff series since its Cup in 2018, MacLellan sent several veteran expiring contracts to buyers in exchange for mostly picks, which he apparently hopes he can convert into younger players who will compliment his older core for at least a few years more. The official line is that the Caps are sacrificing their 2023 to try and improve their position in '24 and '25, but with key players that date back to the Cup squad, like Lars Eller and Dmitry Orlov, suddenly gone from the locker room, morale is pretty low.
“We all know it’s a business,” Ovechkin said when the dust cleared. “But it’s a hard situation to lose friends and very good hockey players.”
On Monday, the Caps couldn't improve upon what's now the fifth-worst record in the East. Playing their third straight game in California (after two wins, actually), they started slow and jumbled and were lucky to get to the first intermission with the score still 0-0. A weird goal from Rasmus Sandin—an actual young deadline add from the Leafs—put the Caps on the board first, but the Kings broke through with two in the second, and with a buzzer-beating empty-netter they were able to win 4-2.
This was another solid performance to signal the Kings as a team that needs to be taken seriously out West, but even in a loss, I think it's notable for the Ovechkin goal. Thanks to a couple of penalties early in the third that led to a five-on-three, the Caps had plenty of space with which to work their signature play—get the puck to Ovechkin at the top of the left circle and have him rip one. They tried it again and again in this stretch, and eventually, it worked.
Ovechkin's constant, nearly stagnant presence in the upper-left corner of the TV screen should be familiar to anyone who's watched him work his way past Howe and toward Gretzky. Ovi is 37 years old and he's still averaging over 20 minutes a night; he's only going to burn himself out by hustling up and down the ice. Ultimately, he contributes more just by lying in wait.
But while it may appear as though his teammates are doing all the work of getting him the puck, treating Ovechkin like a $9.5 million wind-up toy, there are two small moments that I love in this video, when Ovi makes the clear-headed decision to dip into his energy reserves. At 0:40 and at 0:53, Ovechkin creeps just a little further up the ice when he sees that the Kings might have a chance to get it out. Each time, his disruptive presence helps thwart them, leading first to a face-off and then to a goal. He may not be able to give Washington the dizzying weaponry of prime talents like David Pastrnak and Tage Thompson, but it's obvious that Ovechkin's brain is doing so much more than just killing time in that circle, waiting for his opportunity. He's trying to help his team win, the best his body can.
Ovechkin is now 79 goals away from topping Gretzky as the most prolific scorer of all time. At the pace he's on this season—six goals every 10 games—he would make the pass sometime around Christmas 2024. I'm probably one of the last holdouts on Ovi's chase in that I'll stop well short of calling 895 anything close to an inevitability. There's just too much weird shit that can happen, too many bad breaks an athlete can potentially suffer over the course of two seasons or more in his late 30s, that even Ovi's impeccably consistent 40-goal years can't be taken for granted.
The next 79 goals Ovechkin scores, if he scores them, will be the toughest 79 goals of his career. His body can only break down. The damage he takes can only compound. But even in the middle of the worst Capitals season in at least a decade, what a wonderful thing this pursuit is to have. While fragmented rosters like Detroit and St. Louis, in that fading bottom half of the league, may struggle to find motivation in this final month before summer break, the Capitals have history to play for each night. Even when the wins are hard to come by, they can orient themselves around setting up Ovechkin to score. Every game he plays is still a game that matters. It's the least they can do, after all he's done for them.