On Jan. 16, 2006, two struggling hockey teams played in what should have been an entirely forgettable 6-1 victory by the Washington Capitals over the Phoenix Coyotes. It would have been a confidence boost for the Capitals but nothing more.
Then Alex Ovechkin sped into the offensive zone on the right side. Phoenix defenseman Paul Mara stayed with him, and Ovechkin tried to sweep his stick over to toe-drag around him. But while cutting across the slot, Ovechkin got tangled with Mara, and his momentum flung him forward.
He spun onto his back as he went down, and that should have been the end of it. The play appeared dead as soon as Ovechkin hit the ice. But as Ovechkin slid on his back, he hooked one arm over his head and whipped the puck toward the cage. The improbability of it reaching the net that day stunned everyone in Glendale Arena.
“Simply sensational,” Comcast SportsNet’s Joe Beninati said on the television broadcast.
Ten seasons later, Ovechkin has scored 501 goals, becoming the 43rd player and fifth fastest to reach 500. But the goal that still resonates the most is one from his rookie season in an all-but-meaningless game.
It served as the ushering in of a new superstar, fittingly scored in front of then-Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, hockey’s greatest player ever. Ovechkin remembers it differently. To him, it was a happy time on a bad team. He had scored his first career hat trick against Anaheim three days earlier, and between that game and the one against the Coyotes was the rookie dinner. That week was Ovechkin’s NHL dream fully realized.
For the Capitals, it meant something else, the start of a franchise tilt toward the 20-year-old rookie.
“I told him that will be shown on highlights for the next 10 years,” Capitals defenseman Mathieu Biron said after the game.
This is how those in the arena remember “The Goal”:
Coyotes forward Tyson Nash: “I’m pretty sure I was the guy who coughed up the puck just inside the blue line and sent Ovechkin back the other way. Why I was on the ice with Ovechkin at that time, I’m not exactly sure. You’ll have to ask Wayne Gretzky about that.”
Coyotes goaltender Brian Boucher: “I just knew that I did not want him to beat me with a shot on a one-on-one because he has the ability to score off the rush like that. I was super aggressive. . . . I just was out so far that I couldn’t recover. [I was] pushing on my skates and on my knees. I had to eventually resort to a dive tactic, and I dove — and with my stick outstretched — hoping I was covering enough net. And yet, he still was able to get his stick on it and whack it towards the net.”
Capitals goaltender Brent Johnson: “He fell, and I think the puck is in the corner from my vantage point. And then you see the reaction, and that’s when I really knew. The reaction of the defenseman, the reaction of Brian Boucher and that was when I was like, ‘No. No, he just could not do that.’ ”
Coyotes forward Shane Doan: “Steve Gainey’s reaction – because Steve Gainey was a young guy that we had with us at the time — as the puck goes in, he’s kind of by the net. He like kicks the ice like he’s frustrated and whenever you watch it, I always chuckle to myself when I see his reaction to it.”
Capitals forward Brooks Laich: “It was almost like a cloud of dust, and all of a sudden, the puck was in. From our vantage point from the bench, you couldn’t really tell. You could see a body roll and a guy fall and all of a sudden, the puck slid in. You didn’t really know how it went in, but you knew something amazing just happened.”
Beninati: “The tagline just comes to me because it was sensational.”
Ovechkin: “I didn’t see the puck go in because I was on my back. I had to look if I didn’t hit the boards or get injured, so I look up and I see [Boyd Gordon] and [Brendan Witt] came to me and start like, celebrate, so I have to go and see and look what happened, how I did it.”
Nash: “We all had to look at the jumbotron to figure out how that puck got behind the goal line. That was why I looked up there. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? How did this all happen? And how did I turn the puck over?’ ”
Laich: “We just kind of held our breath for a little bit. The building went quiet, then all of a sudden, you could see the replay and everybody went, ‘Ohhhh, wow.’ It was really a unique and unbelievable moment.”
Boucher: “At the time, I didn’t realize he was on his back when he did it. I just couldn’t believe he took the puck from one circle to the other in what felt like one and a half seconds. When I saw the replay of how he ended up scoring that goal, it was quite remarkable.”
Nash: “I think the whole building even applauded him after that goal. He’s in the visiting team’s rink and you’re getting an ovation by the visiting team crowd. Everyone was in awe of how that puck ended up in the back of the net.”
Beninati: “There was a delayed reaction because he does that at top speed and if you’re in the stands or if you’re in the bowl of the arena, you might not have been fully aware of what he did. It goes up on the screen, and the greatest player of all time behind the Phoenix bench at the time is looking up and watching with you.”
Nash: “I remember just watching Wayne Gretzky admire what he just saw live on the ice and then to watch him look at the replay on the jumbotron. I remember him just going, ‘Oh my God, how do I even get mad about that?’ You can’t stop that. You can only hope to contain a player like Ovechkin, as we’ve seen over the years.”
Boucher: “I know I look like a fool on that replay, but I guess it’s pretty cool to be a part of history because that may go down as one of the greatest goals ever.”
Laich: “It was one of those things where you had to take so many looks at it to really see the beauty in it and see the athleticism in it. It wasn’t just a wrist shot where you say, ‘Oh, that’s a nicely placed shot.’ This had so many facets: cutting across the ice, pulling the puck in tight, getting hit by a defender, rolling away from the net and facing away from the net and then hooking your arm around and getting it on the puck and directing it into the net. There were so many variables in that goal that you really had to watch it so many times to really understand how special it was.”
Ovechkin: “The emotion and the move that I make and how everything goes in there, it’s probably the biggest goal, yeah. Obviously lucky, but I’ll take it.”
Johnson: “Most players wouldn’t even try to make a play on that. They would just kind of let the puck go in the corner, get on their feet and dig it out. That’s how special he is. He’s got that gift that makes him say, ‘Well, there’s nothing here, but I’m going to create something.’ ”
Nash: “We were all just in shock and awe and just almost kind of laughed.”
Laich: “I think Alex tried to do it again a couple of days later and couldn’t even get his stick on the puck.”
Johnson: “I can remember other guys trying to do it, just having fun at the end of practice. Nobody can recreate it.”
Boucher: “I’m asked about it a couple times a year. Sometimes, I try to deny that was me in the net, but I’ve come to realize I should embrace it.”
Ovechkin: “For that moment, it was just an unbelievable time. My dream was come true. I was playing in the NHL, I did kind of a special goal and Gretzky was there as well.”