“I know he wants to get it out of the way, so hopefully he gets it done as soon as possible,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s a nice milestone, and it’s been incredible watching him for this many years and hopefully for more years, too. I think me personally, I am just happy for him.”
If Ovechkin scores twice Saturday, he will become the second-fastest player (in 1,138 regular season games) and the second youngest (34) to reach 700 goals. Ovechkin has been on a scoring tear, with 16 goals in his past 10 games, including three hat tricks. He is on pace for 61 goals, which would rank second in his career behind his 65 in 2007-08 — when he was 22.
Ovechkin said he would like to hit the milestone in front of the home fans. The Capitals have asked the NHL for permission for his teammates to join him on the ice to congratulate their captain whenever it happens.
“Yeah, obviously, it is just going to happen sometime. Hope it is next game, but if not, that is okay,” Ovechkin said. “We have another one.”
Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said if Ovechkin gets his 699th goal early in Saturday’s game, he wouldn’t shy away from playing him extended minutes to give him a better chance to reach the milestone.
“He’s a guy that, once he gets rolling early in the game, I tend to play him a little more, so I don’t think I would sway from that theory, especially if we have a chance to do it at home,” Reirden said with a laugh.
Another scenario: If Ovechkin is sitting at 699 and the Flyers pull their goaltender late, would Reirden put Ovechkin on the ice so he could score an empty-netter as his 700th?
“I don’t think he’ll care,” Reirden said. “Right now he’s earned that opportunity to be out there because he’s making the right decisions defensively. You know, it is not something that you just put him out there because he will score goals. He went after this opportunity, and he’s deserved the chances he’s getting.”
Ovechkin has scored six empty-netters this season, the most in his career. He has had five twice (2008-09 and 2009-10) but also zero three times (2005-06, 2011-12 and 2016-17). Of his 698 goals, 39 have been empty-netters. Wayne Gretzky is the career leader with 59.
Ovechkin scored an empty-netter Tuesday against the Kings to complete the first natural hat trick of his career.
“This is part of how his game has evolved," Reirden said. “We want to win games, and as a byproduct he scores goals.”
In his chase for 700, Ovechkin has been keeping pucks, sticks and gloves for his collection. The NHL may end up taking some of those items to catalogue. Ovechkin has collected so many items over the years, his houses in Russia and Virginia are starting to overflow.
“To be honest, right now I have a lot, and my wife tells me to stop,” Ovechkin said. “We don’t have any space in our gym, but it is great for my family, kids, grandkids, you know, when I’m going to be dead. My kids are going to look at it and appreciate it.”
Ovechkin’s teammates know not to force the puck to him, even though they share the excitement over the approaching milestone. With Saturday’s game coming against a Metropolitan Division opponent that they lost to in a poor road showing last month, the Capitals can’t afford to lose focus.
Backstrom said the team also gets a bit of a boost knowing what is at stake from Saturday onward, and he added that Ovechkin’s recent tear hasn’t surprised anyone.
“He is that talented,” Backstrom said. “He has that goal-scoring instinct that no one else has or a couple guys. It’s impressive what he is doing.”
With his hat trick Tuesday, Ovechkin took over the league lead with 40 goals, a total Toronto’s Auston Matthews tied Friday night.
“Now that we are closing in on it, it’s becoming reality,” Reirden said. “I think he will be happy to move past it as well and continue to focus on improving our team and do the things he can do to develop as a player and go about it more under the radar than he has been recently.”
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