Luc Robitaille, an eight-time NHL all-star who scored 668 goals of his own, can recall Ovechkin’s first game in Los Angeles. Robitaille was sitting on the bench and later told a friend that he had never seen a player take over a game in such a way.
“Skill, pure strength, everything,” Robitaille said. “That was his rookie year. He must have thrown about five hits against us. I think he had a goal or two, but I don’t even remember if he scored. But he just dominated the game physically, skill-wise and everything. It was so different. … He surprised guys.”
Younger players, such as the Vancouver Canucks’ Elias Pettersson, remember their first on-ice encounters with Ovechkin after his star status had been well established. Pettersson grew up watching Ovechkin, and it was a tad surreal to share the same ice as the Russian.
However, at some point during the game, the ref blew the whistle signaling offside, and Pettersson finally had his first interaction with the star.
“I didn’t think it was offsides, so I kind of said something to the ref,” Pettersson explained. “Then Ovechkin told me like, ‘Just be quiet or ...’ And, yeah, I don’t want to say exactly what he said, but it is just like a little quick chirp. It was fun. He is an unbelievable player, an unbelievable shot, so just a fun moment.”
Seasoned players have other memories of Ovechkin, usually ones that end poorly for his opponents. New York Rangers winger Chris Kreider remembered playing in the second round of the playoffs against the Capitals.
“I think it might have been my first shift that I had against him,” Kreider said. “I tried to throw a pass through the middle of the ice, and he stepped up and hammered it off the bar and in. And I sat on the bench and got to watch him for the rest of the night.
“He’s … I don’t think ‘special’ really does it justice. He’s such a weapon; he’s so dangerous when he’s on the ice.”
The Nashville Predators’ Roman Josi also has had his fair taste of reality against Ovechkin. Once, the Predators were beating the Capitals in Nashville, and Ovechkin had been kind of quiet. Then, in the midst of two minutes, he scored “two unbelievable one-timers” and took the game over.
“It is just what he does,” Josi said. “You give him a little too much space, and he’s just going to score. Pretty cool to play against him and pretty hard, too.”
Then there are the standout moments, the ones the players of the past, present and most likely future will remember. The biggest was “The Goal” on Jan. 16, 2006. It was the final goal of the Capitals’ 6-1 victory, with 8:06 remaining during an afternoon game against the Phoenix Coyotes.
A rookie Ovechkin carried the puck over the blue line and cut to the middle against defenseman Paul Mara. The Russian fell as he tried to toe-drag while crossing the slot, maintaining control of the puck the entire time, before he slid toward the left circle and rolled onto his back. With his stick reaching, he hooked the puck back toward the net and slid it past the goalie.
“That goal that he scored behind his back was pretty cool. I mean, I remember I was pretty young, I was still in Switzerland, and, yeah, everybody saw that goal,” Josi said. “It was pretty special.”
Some players have more personal memories of Ovechkin, such as Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche remembering a specific YouTube video of the young Russian star that was made in 2008.
“I remember growing up, he had the sickest YouTube montage ever,” said MacKinnon, who was 13 when the video came out. “It was like a ‘Dream On’ soundtrack, and it was eight minutes of him doing crazy stuff. Actually, we were talking about it the other day with all the young guys on the team, who grew up in the era of [Sidney Crosby] and Ovi, that YouTube video came up. That is a big impact on my life for sure.”
Capitals defenseman John Carlson recalls when a men’s health magazine published a feature on Ovechkin and the Russian was running up and down the team plane asking for copies. As it turned out, his teammates had hidden them all.
“Still gets talked about to this day,” Carlson said with a laugh.
Some recall not a specific moment but an attribute. Ovechkin’s scoring ability from the left circle on the power play — his “office,” as it has come to be known — is a singular defining trait.
“Nobody that has ever been more dangerous than him in that spot on the power play in the history of our game,” Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano said. “… It’s been pretty cool to watch his career."
With Ovechkin showing no signs of slowing down, the conversation quickly turns to his next 100 goals — and maybe even surpassing Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894.
“If there is one guy that has a chance, it’s him,” Robitaille said. “It’s still hard; it’s going to be really hard. But if there is one guy that can do it, it is him. There is no one else. I don’t believe there will be anyone else who is going to come in during the next 20 years and be even near him.”
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