Alex Ovechkin acknowledges the crowd at Capital One Arena after scoring his 600th career goal Monday night. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Sports columnist

It shouldn’t take a number, an arbitrary number at that, to get us to this point of appreciation. Yet here we are, with Kirk Cousins headed to free agency and the NCAA tournament starting and the Nationals gathering steam toward another playoff run. We could be distracted by the peripheral issues, but Alex Ovechkin grabs our attention again, because he just scored the 600th goal of his career.

The marker in question came in the second period Monday night against Winnipeg at Capital One Arena, and he was the author of the home team’s only two regulation goals in what became a 3-2 overtime victory. When considering the accomplishment, think about the building in which it came and its moniker, because when Ovechkin scored goal No. 1 — on Oct. 5, 2005 — the place on F Street was known as MCI Center. We were all younger then, weren’t we?

The first goal, way back when, came via assists from Dainius Zubrus and Jeff Halpern, Caps from yesteryear now retired. Ovechkin followed it with another that same night, just like No. 599 was followed by No. 600 Monday. This was the 990th game of his career, so it’s worth recounting what that means. You’ll hear this a lot, but drink it in. Here is the list of players who reached 600 goals in fewer games than Ovechkin: Wayne Gretzky. Mario Lemieux. Brett Hull. That’s it. Heady stuff.

It’s instructive that Ovechkin’s first goal feels so distant, because it came in a different era in the sport around here. Back then, we saw only the potential. He represented hockey hope in Washington, a quantity that was not available to the masses. The sport was different here back then, marked by an arena that seemed more half-empty than half-full.

We can fall into that trap, too, because it’s easy to concentrate on what Ovechkin has not accomplished rather than what he has. We know the spring stats, that the three Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player have not been followed with even a modicum of playoff success. These are Ovechkin’s Caps, and they have been for a dozen years, so their failure to advance past the second round of the playoffs is his failure to advance past the second round of the playoffs. They’re linked, for sure.

But focusing on that connection — even as these current Capitals work their way through a goaltending controversy and try to maximize a limited roster — also minimizes what we have witnessed since that first goal back at the place then known as MCI Center. And what we have witnessed has been mesmerizing.

The first time I talked with Ovechkin came in January 2006. He was in his rookie year with the Capitals and simultaneously headed into his first Olympics for his pride, his joy, his Russia. His hair was not gray, as it is now. He wasn’t married, as he is now. He was 20, not 32. There was no disappointment, only promise. “This is fun,” he said. Each goal was celebrated as was his 600th, with pure, raw exuberance.

“With this kid, whatever’s good for Alex is good for the Washington Capitals,” Caps owner Ted Leonsis told me back then. “He’s made that much of an impact in just this amount of time.”

It’s worth remembering that sentiment, even as we also process the franchise’s travails since then. Without Ovechkin, there’s no Winter Classic in Pittsburgh or a home date on New Year’s Day at Nationals Park, each among the seminal moments in franchise history. Without Ovechkin, there are no star turns for the Caps on visits to Toronto or Montreal, among his favorite places to play, not to mention no place in the center of the NHL universe, with Ovechkin’s Caps and Sidney Crosby’s Penguins pitted against each other both on the marquee and on the ice.

In the same breath, it’s understandable that people will point out that the three players who reached 600 goals in fewer games than Ovechkin all won Stanley Cups. Multiple Stanley Cups. Six hundred goals places Ovechkin 20th on the all-time list, with Jari Kurri just one ahead of him in 19th. Of those with more goals than Ovi, only four never won a Stanley Cup — Marcel Dionne and Jarome Iginla (who is still active, though not currently on a team), sure, but Mike Gartner and Dino Ciccarelli, too, each of those two with deep Capitals ties.

These are the nits that people will pick, and they’re significant, for sure. Maybe a Stanley Cup — or even a run to the finals, or even advancing to the Eastern Conference finals — would make Ovechkin’s position as one of the game’s greats solid, indisputable. Monday night, he scored multiple goals for the 119th time in his 990th game — which means roughly once in every eight games you had the chance to see Ovechkin score not once, but twice. Separate that kind of winter wizardry from what has happened in past springs. There’s a lot of joy there.

So there was joy Monday, too. The Capitals are in a precarious position, tussling with Pittsburgh atop the Metropolitan Division, just back from an arduous West Coast road trip in which goals were hard to come by. And yet Ovechkin scored not five minutes in, this on a five-on-three advantage. Child’s play, even for a 32-year-old.

The 600th goal, though, wasn’t such a layup. It was a rebound of a rebound, his own hard work in front of the cage. When they build a statue of Ovechkin to display somewhere outside MCI Cen — uh, sorry, Capital One Arena — it’ll be of Ovi firing from the left circle, a slap shot that no one can see until it rips the twine in the back of the net. But here he was against Winnipeg down low, whacking at a loose puck until he willed it in.

We can wring our hands over what hasn’t happened, and believe me, when the playoffs come, I’ll be there leading the charge. But look not just around his sport, but around town. Ovechkin has outlasted and outperformed Mark Brunell and Jason Campbell and Kirk Cousins. He was here during Gilbert Arenas’s rise and his fall. He reported for work before Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper were drafted, willed the Capitals to the playoffs while the Nats were still losing 100 games a year.

He’s not perfect, not by a long shot. But to say that hockey in this town would have reached this level — both of achievement and of interest — without Alex Ovechkin is to willfully ignore the facts of the case. What we have seen are 600 goals from one man in one uniform representing one city. Don’t forget, for a single moment, how fun that has been.