A white piece of tape hugged the rim of the puck, and then the permanent marker came out. “500th Goal — 1/10/16,” was carefully written on Alex Ovechkin’s latest keepsake.
The milestones are still meaningful for Ovechkin. Even as he breaks records or reaches new markers with seemingly increasing frequency, the pucks and sticks from those moments are preserved.
He wouldn’t forget anyway. His first NHL goal? Of course he remembers it: a one-timer against the Columbus Blue Jackets in his very first game. Fast-forward more than 10 years and 499 goals in a Washington Capitals uniform, and Ovechkin has reached another milestone, another memento for his basement collection.
The 43rd NHL player to score 500 goals and the fifth fastest to do so, Ovechkin cleared the threshold from his usual power-play spot at the left faceoff circle Sunday night. And this much is virtually certain: It won’t be his last milestone.
“I hope I’m going to get 600 one day,” Ovechkin said recently. “Or maybe 700. You never know.”
But each puck and stick added to the collection also marks time passing. Even for a player whose scoring consistency has defied age and league trends of declining scoring, his prime has an expiration date. Ovechkin knows what hockey trophy has never graced his basement — and how his personal legacy hangs in the balance.
“He’s had so many accomplishments individually now that there’s nothing else at all really that he needs to do besides win the Stanley Cup,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Then all of the questions that people ever had about him go away.”
Even before Sunday, it had been a season of milestones for Ovechkin. He turned 30 the day before training camp began. He scored his 900th point. He passed Sergei Fedorov as the highest goal-scoring Russian with his 484th NHL goal. Saturday’s game was his 800th.
“I’m just growing up,” he said.
Amid all the introspection and examination of Ovechkin’s evolution as a player, what’s most remarkable might be how little his production has changed while the game has.
Halfway through this NHL season, games are averaging 5.30 combined goals, down from 5.46 in 1,230 games last season. It’s the lowest scoring has been since 2003-04, when games averaged 5.14 goals, according to hockeyreference.com.
Just three players had more than 40 goals last season. Only Ovechkin had more than 50. The same was true in the 2013-14 season. While even the best players in the league struggle to reach 40 goals in a season, Ovechkin has scored at least 50 six times in his career. With a league-leading 26 goals in 41 games this season, he’s on pace to do so again.
“It’s just, you know, luck,” Ovechkin said.
Through Saturday, he had scored 148 more goals than any other player during his 10-year career. In defenseman Nate Schmidt’s first training camp with the Capitals, he thought he and his defense partner had perfect positioning during a drill, but then Ovechkin used Schmidt as a screen and fired the puck past him without looking. Schmidt heard a whistle, and realized he’d been scored on.
On Saturday, Schmidt was witness to Ovechkin scoring his 499th goal the exact same way, going end-to-end against the New York Rangers and scoring around defenseman Ryan McDonagh to beat a blinded Henrik Lundqvist.
“That was textbook what he does,” Schmidt said. “He’s really good at it, making sure he gets inside guys and shoots back through the body. It’s incredibly hard for goalies and D-men to play that, especially when he gets a step on them because he has such a quick release.”
The elite goal-scoring has come from a combination of Ovechkin’s signature quick release and a volume of accurate, high-velocity shots (5.1 per game). He can score on the rush; he can score on the power play; he can score by beating you one-on-one with a toe drag; and he can score while falling down.
While forwards are supposed to hit their peak in their mid-20s, Ovechkin has gotten better with age, leading the league in goals for three straight seasons entering this one. His consistency has been especially striking this season, when contemporaries such as Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby (12 goals), Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler (eight) and New York’s Rick Nash (12) have struggled.
“It doesn’t really make sense if you look at the way that’s gone now compared to back in the day,” Alzner said. “Obviously, he has a great shot and a big body, and that’s something that really helps him. But the ability to find ways around all of the defensemen and all of the video that teams watch and still put the puck in the net is just outstanding.
“I have no answer for it besides that he’s one of the best players in the world and one of the best players the league has seen. He’s just got ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is.”
When Ovechkin was still in his first NHL season and making it look easy — 52 goals and 54 assists — he loved having company. Friends and family from Russia would visit, and attending Capitals games then was simple.
“I would have 10 tickets for every game for free,” Ovechkin said. “Right now, if I need some tickets, it’s impossible to get.”
Ovechkin single-handedly spurred the revitalization of hockey interest in Washington. A market once mocked for its lack of support now has a home sellout streak dating from March 2009. Even as the team’s record fluctuated, Ovechkin was a must-see attraction.
His stunning, acrobatic goals were replayed over and over on YouTube, and his flamboyant celebrations were watched almost as closely. He’d often leap up or drop to his knees, his mouth always open in a wide smile. Fist pumps, leg kicks and jumps into the glass were all part of the Ovechkin goal-scoring experience.
He celebrated every goal like it was his first, and that drew criticism from some around the league. “Hockey Night In Canada” analyst Don Cherry said on his popular “Coach’s Corner” segment that young players need to learn “the Canadian way. What we have to watch is we don’t start acting like goofy soccer guys.” Video of soccer players celebrating goals was shown, followed by video of Ovechkin.
Ovechkin shrugged off those comments. A few weeks later, when he scored his 50th goal of the 2008-09 season, he put his stick on the ice and warmed his hands over it, as if it were on fire. That drew even more ire.
Barry Trotz wasn’t Ovechkin’s coach at the time, but on the subject of his celebrations, Trotz smiled and said, “He’s entertaining, you know?” That’s why people pay to see him, Trotz said, and that’s why Washington’s practices and morning skates often attract large crowds on the road.
“That’s what draws people to Alex: He still has the little kid in him, the joy of the game,” Trotz said. “He still enjoys the game. I think that’s really important. That’s why he’s good. I think that when it becomes work, it’s hard to be productive. And I don’t think he looks at it as work. He enjoys playing and he enjoys playing in front of the people.
“He gets that. He’s put up a lot of goals. He’s brought people a lot of special moments.”
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Ovechkin drew notice even when he wasn’t scoring. On his very first NHL shift, he threw a body check that dislodged the support between two pieces of plexiglass along the end boards.
Quickly he ascended as the face of the Capitals franchise. On Jan. 5, 2010, he became the 14th captain in the team’s history.
“When he started out, he was a very respectful kid, he was eager to learn, he wanted to learn the English language as quickly as he could,” former Capitals goaltender Olie Kolzig said. “I think maybe he was given the captaincy a little early. I don’t think he was ready for it. But obviously he was the best player on the team, and I guess they felt that symbolized that. I don’t know if he was really ready for that.
“There were times when things were questioned about him, but I think he learned from those times. And now he’s 30 years old and he’s still as dominant as ever.”
Last season, Ovechkin approached Trotz and asked why he wasn’t playing late in games, when the Capitals were protecting leads and opponents had pulled the goaltender for an extra attacker. Trotz, in his first season with the Capitals, was honest with his superstar.
“I don’t have enough trust in your game yet,” Trotz told him. “You don’t have enough detail.”
Ovechkin asked Trotz to give him a chance, and Trotz said he would when he felt Ovechkin was “committed to that part of the game fully.”
Ovechkin said he’s playing “total different hockey” now than he did earlier in his career, but he also said he did what coaches asked of him.
“Of course, my job is to score goals,” Ovechkin said. “I also have to bring energy to the team, like make a big hit or a nice play. If you didn’t score a goal, you can do something else.”
The last quarter of the season, Trotz started playing Ovechkin at the end of games when protecting a lead, trusting he would block a shot if needed. When he would get back to the bench, he would give Trotz a proud nod.
“He’s doing these things that no one ever thought that he could or would do,” Alzner said. “He’s proving them wrong with that.”
Said Boston Bruins Coach Claude Julien: “Ovi, in my mind, has always been a great player, and he’s still a great player. What I see from the outside is how he’s really bought into the team concept where he’s been a real good leader. He’s doing things we maybe didn’t see him do earlier in his career.”
Ovechkin said that came with maturity. Did scoring matter more to him when he was younger? Yes, he said, but repeated playoff losses changed his priorities. “You’re not going to win by yourself,” he said. The Capitals now have a better team around him, one that has the best winning percentage in the league and can win games on nights when he doesn’t score.
Not that he’s going to stop scoring anytime soon.
“What are you willing to give up to win a cup?” Trotz said. “He’s willing to give up maybe some of the fluff goals that you get as a goal-scorer for substance in the game. I think he’s still just as productive, and he takes as much pride in the other stuff as scoring a goal.”