The New York Islanders’ nine-game win streak was finally stopped in its tracks on Tuesday night, and all it took was the greatest scorer of our generation netting a historic game-winner.
With the Washington Capitals up 1-0 on the Isles in the second period, Mathew Barzal picked up a two-minute minor for cross-checking. And a little under two minutes later, Alexander Ovechkin unleashed that iconic power-play one-timer from the left side, sending a bullet past his old teammate and countryman Semyon Varlamov and into the ceiling of the net. It was a goal that put him one up on Phil Esposito for his career, moving him into sole possession of sixth place on the all-time NHL leaderboard with 718. The Caps would go on to win, 3-1.
“It’s history,” an unsentimental Ovechkin said afterwards. “It’s pretty good numbers and happy to be in that category. But just move forward. It’s done. It’s history. It was a very good match, big points and obviously big numbers.”
“I got to tell you, man, congratulations,” Esposito said in a pre-recorded message played at the arena. “You are a fantastic hockey player, and I don’t know how you score all those goals with the way these guys block shots with the great equipment that they wear.”
COVID-19 may have robbed Ovi of a realistic shot at breaking Gretzky’s all-time record of 894, but more importantly to him, Ovechkin’s continued stellar play is positioning his mildly surprising Capitals for a run to the Cup. Though he missed a handful of games for that controversial COVID protocol violation near the beginning of the season, he’s tied for the Caps’ goal lead with 12 and has seen a big jump in his assist tallies compared to last year, too. Sasha’s scoring pace may not be matching the incredible 48 in 68 that he put up last year, but the rate has certainly been quickening of late. Last night’s tally makes it four games in a row with a goal, and five out of the past six.
One of these years, you think, one of these years age has to catch up with him. But apparently, Ovechkin’s age-35 season is not the time when he slows down into an unrecognizably average hockey player. And because of that, the Capitals now hold first place in maybe the most lopsided-looking division in hockey. In the East, you have (in order) the Capitals, Islanders, Penguins, Bruins, and Flyers beating up on the Devils and the Sabres, putting together very impressive win streaks that they then put on the line in high-stakes competition with each other. Coming off series with the Sabres and Rangers, the Penguins saw their six-game streak ended by Dan Vladar and the Bruins last night, while the Caps’ squashing of the Islanders’ undefeated run added to their own stretch of a half-dozen wins.
There’s reason to be concerned about the Capitals’ ability to keep fending off their local rivals. Namely, they’re scoring on 12.3 percent of their shots, which is the highest of anyone in hockey and typically the first thing you look at when predicting regression. In addition, their two youngsters between the pipes—Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov—have been fine but not at the level you’d expect from a true contender. But even if the division leaders don’t pass all the same tests that the Islanders have at this point in the season, there’s still one big advantage that they can take comfort in, particularly after the news broke that Isles top scorer Anders Lee will be out for the season. The Capitals have Alex Ovechkin, and nobody else does.