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Alex Ovechkin has spent his entire career playing the explosive hits

Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin has long been known for his goal-scoring abilities, but his physicality has often been underrated. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
6 min

SUNRISE, Fla. — Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin has long been known for his prolific goal-scoring skills, but an underrated aspect of the 37-year-old’s game — as many in the NHL can attest to — is his physicality.

Since 2005-06, not only does Ovechkin have 812 goals in 1,326 games, he also has 3,417 hits. By comparison, Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby has 541 goals and 992 hits in 1,157 games, while the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos has 505 goals and 1,055 hits in 970 games. Ovechkin also has played the second-most games since 2005-06, more proof of his durability even though he has thrown the fourth-most hits since he entered the league.

Ovechkin’s scoring skills — but not his physically — were on display during this weekend’s All-Star Game festivities. But even among all-stars, Ovechkin is a cut above in both categories.

But what is it like to absorb a hit from the 6-foot-3, 238-pound left wing? Mike Knuble, a teammate of Ovechkin’s late in his 16-year career, took one during practice and described the impact as being like “kinetic energy.”

Knuble, a right wing who played 220 games for the Capitals, still thinks it was his fault for getting in the big Russian’s way. There were drills going on simultaneously at both ends of the rink, Knuble “crossed his imaginary center line,” and in the blink of an eye the two collided at full speed.

“As a player, you had to know where he was,” Knuble said. “He would just come real heavy, and he gets there just crisp — with energy. … There is a pop. It is not just a dead weight. It is just like an explosion.”

Another ex-teammate, center Jeff Halpern, remembers how reckless Ovechkin would play when he was younger and how much he didn’t care whom he hit — or when, where or how often. Early in his career, one of Ovechkin’s calling cards was the preponderance of gold chains hanging from his neck. When Ovechkin really started moving and geared up for a hit, Halpern said, he remembers the sound of the chains clanking together and causing a sense of dread.

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Chandler Stephenson, an all-star with the Vegas Golden Knights who played for Washington for the first five years of his career, agreed that Ovechkin is the one player he is “scared of” on the ice.

“When I was with him, I never saw him get knocked down,” Stephenson said. “… It is kind of shocking how thick and big he actually is, and it is almost like he is made in a lab and how you want to be made as a hockey player. I think that is something that gets [overlooked]. He sits next to guys that are fully dressed, and he looks bigger than them, even when they have shoulder pads on.”

Chicago Blackhawks all-star defenseman Seth Jones remembered how hard it was to play against Ovechkin during a 2018 first-round playoff series when he was with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“Him and [Tom] Wilson together on a line were like wrecking balls,” Jones said. “When he is hitting and he is physical and he is forechecking and then he is scoring on top of it, he is one of the best players in the world. He is such a big body, too. I don’t think people realize how big he is out there.”

St. Louis Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko must be one of the few NHL players who have not been on the wrong end of an Ovechkin hit.

“I took a slash from him, but most Russians in the league … we are respectable,” Tarasenko said. “… He is good guy, [but] you have to know who you are playing against. If you are playing against a guy that hits hard, you stay aware.”

Rick Tocchet, a star in the 1980s and 1990s who blended toughness and scoring skills in a far more physical era of hockey history, called Ovechkin a “known hitter,” and he is unsure why he doesn’t get more hype for that part of his game. During the first shift of his first NHL game, Ovechkin threw a check on Columbus defenseman Radoslav Suchy that dislodged the stanchion between two pieces of plexiglass. Now in his 18th NHL season, he still can knock an opponent off his skates.

“They are punishing hits — they are not fluffs,” said Tocchet, who recently was named coach of the Vancouver Canucks. “There are players with ice bags after games — under the radar around the league.”

Former Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau chuckled as he compared Ovechkin’s physical nature to what he recalls of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

“There is a little bunny, and he is wrestling a guy with muscles on top of muscles on top of muscles — and that is what Ovi reminds me of,” Boudreau said. “If you hit him, you are the one that is going to get hurt, and I’ve seen so many times where he collided knee on knee with somebody and the other guy goes down and Ovi just skates away. He is a brick wall. Once you hit him, he becomes the predator and he comes after you. He doesn’t shy away, and he doesn’t get hurt.”

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Hits aren’t all that make Ovechkin a physical player. Former Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner believes Ovechkin’s ability to be physical in front of the net and along the boards can go unnoticed.

In Alzner’s first game with the Montreal Canadiens following nine seasons with Washington, he experienced Ovechkin’s strength firsthand. They were in front of the net, jockeying for position, when Alzner managed to clear him out of the crease. Then, all of a sudden, Ovechkin just stopped.

“I cannot push him anymore, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I got to try to lift this guy’s stick.’ And, sure enough, a shot comes, and all he does is make a quick little turn to make my stick go flying out of the way, he whips it back, hits the puck [into the net] far side — and it was like I had no chance,” Alzner said. “There was nothing I could have done differently on this play. When he wanted to stop and stay in that position, I wasn’t moving him. … He is just a force.”

As his career has evolved, Ovechkin has gotten more selective about when he throws a big hit, but he has been credited with 134 in 52 games this season. Nobody higher than him on the hits list has more than 20 goals.

So is there anyone who can match up with Ovechkin’s skill set? Actually, perhaps this is the better question: Could there ever be?

“Nope,” Boudreau said. “He is one in a million.”