As Alex Ovechkin rumbled down the ice, Capitals fans at Capital One Arena simultaneously leaned forward in their seats, preparing for something spectacular and getting in position to jump and celebrate when it inevitably happened. Sprung free for a breakaway, Ovechkin didn't disappoint, elevating a backhand shot past San Jose Sharks goaltender Martin Jones.
"I don't have a good backhand, but it goes in," a modest Ovechkin said afterward. "I try to do it in the third period, but I don't have that skill. One worked. I'll take it."
He celebrated alone, lifting his stick in triumph before his teammates could join him. It was a fitting picture for how Ovechkin has been in a league of his own for the past 12 years.
The Washington Capitals' 4-1 win Monday night was Ovechkin's latest message to the rest of the NHL. At 32 years old, Ovechkin scored his league-best 20th goal of the season in just his 28th game, putting him on pace for 59 goals, which would be his best goal-scoring production since the 2007-08 season, when he scored 65 goals as a 22-year-old.
Ovechkin added an assist, his eighth of the season, on Brett Connolly's power-play goal later in the second period. Entering the game, Washington had just one regulation win against San Jose in the teams' past 25 meetings. Coach Barry Trotz referred to the Sharks as the Capitals' "unicorn team." Ovechkin was a San Jose fan growing up, and it was poetic that he was the one to help the Capitals finally sink the Sharks.
Ovechkin's goal gave him 578 for his career, moving him past Mark Recchi for 20th place all time. Ovechkin has played more than 700 fewer games than Recchi, and if Monday's performance was any indication, Ovechkin has a lot more left in him.
"To do it with a difference of 700 games, that just blows my mind," Trotz said.
"You can't even keep up with all the guys he passes — that [Mike] Bossy guy and that Recchi guy today," goaltender Philipp Grubauer said, grinning at some of the Hall of Fame company mentioned with Ovechkin.
And about that backhand?
"He's been working on it for ages," Grubauer said. "Since I've been here, he's been working on his backhand, and it paid off today."
Trotz said it was immediately clear that Ovechkin "had lots of jump" against the Sharks. "Every time he got the puck, you're going, 'He might go end-to-end here,' " Trotz said.
The captain has had more of those kind of nights this season. By Ovechkin's standards, the 2016-17 season was an off year for him with 33 goals, just 16 of them coming at even strength. The sharp drop in production — he scored 50 the year before — invited questions about Ovechkin's conditioning, if he was devolving into purely a power-play specialist and if it was a sign that perhaps Ovechkin was starting to look his age.
But Ovechkin opened this campaign with hat tricks in his first two games, and he hasn't slowed down much since, quieting any critics. The most encouraging part for the Capitals is that 14 of his 20 goals have been at even strength, two away from his 82-game total last year just two months into the season. With Washington not as deep as it was a year ago, Ovechkin's resurgence has played a large part in the team winning five of the past six games.
"If he can have those nights every night, he'll be a force, and we'll be a force," Trotz said.
Entering Monday's game, the Sharks were second in the NHL with just 2.24 goals allowed per game, and Jones had been particularly dominant in his career against the Capitals, compiling a 4-0-0 record with a .963 save percentage and a 1.00 goals against average. Capital One Arena had been particularly sweet to him: He had not allowed a goal in his previous two starts here. That run ended 16:49 into the first period, when Devante Smith-Pelly deflected in defenseman John Carlson's shot.
Ovechkin, Connolly and rookie Jakub Vrana each got pucks past Jones from there, and the win moved Washington (16-11-1) to just two points out of first place in the Metropolitan Division. But the Capitals might have also suffered an important loss Monday night: Top-six forward T.J. Oshie suffered an undisclosed "upper-body" injury in the second period on a hit from Joe Thornton and did not return to the game.
"Osh is one of our best players," said forward Tom Wilson, who later fought Thornton in response to the hit. "He's one of the leaders in this room. Honestly, it's not great to see that hit in that instance. Obviously hoping Osh makes a full recovery and feels better soon."