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Alex Ovechkin is hurt, but you just know he’ll be back for the playoffs

The Capitals honored Alex Ovechkin, who ranks third in goals in NHL history, before Tuesday's loss to the Islanders. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The last time the fans at Capital One Arena saw Alex Ovechkin during what has been a historic 2021-22 regular season, his No. 8 sweater was on a rack somewhere, replaced by a sleek gray suit and a blue tie. He was on the ice in dress shoes rather than skates, his grin wide through his beard.

He has 780 goals, which are third most in NHL history, and it feels as though he has as many tribute videos. Tuesday’s included messages not only from the men he passed this year — Marcel Dionne, Brett Hull, Jaromir Jagr — but also from his parents and his wife and kids back home in Russia.

The Ovi ovation was lovely and deserved, but it certainly wasn’t the news of the day. After Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders, there are two games left. The Stanley Cup playoffs — gosh, even the phrase brings tingles to the spine — begin next week. And the 36-year-old Ovechkin is day-to-day with an upper-body injury.

That’s hockey jargon for “He messed up his shoulder when he crashed into the boards, but he’ll be back when it’s prudent.”

His availability for the playoffs?

“I want to say I hope so,” Coach Peter Laviolette said Tuesday morning.

Peter, with all due respect, you don’t hope so. You know so.

Here’s the most pertinent point about next week: Since his postseason debut in 2008, Ovechkin’s Capitals have played 141 playoff games. Ovechkin has laced up the skates 141 times.

Day-to-day? Sure, yeah, fine. Whether the opponent for Game 1 is the Florida Panthers or the New York Rangers, when the puck drops to open the playoffs, Ovechkin will be in uniform, ready to throw his body around, a heat-seeking missile for the back of the net. There’s no evidence to suggest otherwise, and that in itself is remarkable.

Bruins legend Johnny Bucyk on Alex Ovechkin breaking his age-old record

Step away from hockey for a moment. Think about the mainstay, star athletes who have come and gone here since Ovechkin first arrived 17 years ago. Ryan Zimmerman was and forever will be Mr. National, but his career was interrupted and altered by — you name it, pick an injury — the shoulder that forced him from third base to first or the foot that kept him out of the lineup or the hip that nagged him eternally. Robert Griffin III was a lightning bolt — until the turf at FedEx Field grabbed him, shredding his knee, and he was never the same. Stephen Strasburg is a World Series MVP who has been lost to Tommy John surgery and then to the more daunting thoracic outlet syndrome. When he will pitch again, we have no idea.

Keep going. In John Wall’s final three years in Washington, he played 73 games. The Wizards just finished a season in which Bradley Beal played just 40 times. Elena Delle Donne won the WNBA’s MVP award and led the Mystics to the title in 2019 — and played just three games in the following two seasons.

No Washington star is impervious to calamity — except Ovechkin.

“Honestly, his style of play, you’re going to get injured,” forever running mate Nicklas Backstrom said.

That is both completely logical and demonstrably false.

There are some old statistics here that bear updating, because as Ovechkin creeps closer to 40, the numbers cause more jaws to hit more floors. Since his rookie year of 2005-06, the Capitals have played 1,460 regular season and playoff games. Ovechkin has appeared in 1,415 of them. That’s a cool 96.9 percent show-up rate. Maybe there aren’t participation medals. But there should be some kind of award for a graying father of two who grabs his lunch pail that frequently.

Not only has no player appeared in more games over that span than Ovechkin, but no one is within 25 games of him. It’s to the point in which 21-year-old Connor McMichael — who took Ovechkin’s spot in the lineup Tuesday night but was 4 when Ovechkin played his first NHL game — knows the drill.

“You always hear, ‘Russian machine never breaks,’ ” McMichael said Tuesday. You know why you always hear it? Because ever since Ovechkin used that phrase in 2006, it has continued to be true. He missed 10 games in 2009-10 (several with a shoulder injury) and 11 games in the bumpy 2020-21 season, some because of violating the NHL’s coronavirus rules and others with nagging injuries. His games missed in his other years: one, zero, zero, three, three, four, zero, four, one, three, zero, zero, one, one and now three this year — the first two because he was in the NHL’s coronavirus protocols.

So for something like the 10th consecutive season, the question: How in the world does he keep doing this?

“Sometimes there’s got to be a little bit of luck to it,” Laviolette said. “But he’s a really strong guy. He’s just physically well put-together. I can’t explain [it].”

It just keeps happening. The attitude around the Capitals, even as Laviolette tried to add a bit of mystery about the playoffs, is that Ovi is Ovi, and so when the puck drops, he’ll be there.

“I just think mentally, he’s so strong,” Backstrom said. “He plays through everything. It’s just the way he is as a guy. He doesn’t miss games. And it doesn’t matter how hurt he is. He’s one of those guys you can always count on.”

A marvel, then. But here’s the thing, too: There’s going to be one of these crashes into the boards, one of these slow-to-get-up-from hits, that matters. That’s only logical. Even if Ovechkin doesn’t play in the Capitals’ remaining two games — Thursday at the Islanders and Friday at the Rangers — he just became the oldest player to score 50 goals in a season. There’s a reason no one has done that at 37: Physical skills erode, and even staying on the ice becomes hard. That’s true for Backstrom, who at 34 is nursing his way through this season with a hip problem that could be an issue for the rest of his career.

But Ovechkin doesn’t much get along with logic. In Game 5 of the 2017 first-round series against Toronto, Ovechkin went down in a heap in the first period. He put no weight on his left leg as he went to the dressing room. His game seemed over, the rest of the playoffs in doubt.

But when the gate swung open and the Caps took the ice for the second period, there he was, charging ahead.

“He’s a replace-the-parts-and-keep-going kind of guy,” former Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt said that night.

The parts, they’re still producing. He didn’t play Tuesday night. Don’t worry.

“He’s durable,” Laviolette said. “He hates not playing the game. He hates being out, so he’s going to want to be back as soon as possible — and we’re going to make sure that he’s in a good spot to do that.”

You know when would be a good spot? Next week, when the playoffs begin. That’s no longer a time for tribute videos. It’s a time to enhance legacies. Alex Ovechkin is aware of all of that. There’s zero chance he doesn’t show up — full force.

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