What he’s telling us is simple: Don’t look at what I have done. Imagine what I might do.
The 700th goal came Saturday afternoon at the New Jersey Devils. Plodding toward such an occasion, given his gray hair, could have been expected. Ovechkin went after the mark with some combination of viciousness and voraciousness. Though the wait seemed interminable these past two weeks, he actually roared to No. 700.
He has 16 goals in his past 14 games. He has more than 40 goals for the 11th time in his career. He is near the top of the NHL in goals. And every night, it seems, Wayne Gretzky’s unattainable record — 894 goals over 20 NHL seasons — gets a little closer.
Wayne Gretzky’s career goals mark? What are we even talking about?
“The fact that you’re even talking about it in this day and age is insane,” said Tom Wilson, who has spent much of this season on the wing opposite Ovechkin. “It’s so hard to score goals.”
For mere mortals, at least. So before we get to whether Gretzky is reachable — a debate that grows less absurd by the day — let’s consider the environment in which Ovechkin is even entering the conversation.
NHL teams this season are averaging a smidgen more than three goals per game. The consensus: That makes for fun, aesthetically pleasing hockey. A normal game is 3-2 or 4-3, which feels about right.
But let’s say the heart of a goal scorer’s career is between ages 25 and 30. For those six seasons of Ovechkin’s career — 2010-11 through 2015-16 — the average output for an NHL team ranged between 2.71 and 2.79 goals per night. That might not sound like much of a difference, but it’s a quarter of a goal less every game than right now. That’s 20 fewer goals per team per season.
Over what should have been the prime of Ovechkin’s career, that’s a difficult environment in which to charge toward Gretzky. Consider the same period for the Great One. His age 25-to-30 seasons were 1985-86 through 1990-91, when the average goals per team per game ranged from 3.46 to 3.97. In 1981-82, the season Gretzky scored his record 92 goals — as absurd of a number as there is in any sport — the nightly output was more than four goals per team.
Gretzky was the greatest, and no one’s trying to take that away from him. But is it possible that what Ovechkin’s doing is more impressive?
“I don’t want to compare the game back then to now, but I think anybody that’s watched hockey would say it’s completely insane that he’s even close,” Wilson said. “He’s such a dominant force out there.”
Note that the discussions about Ovechkin’s excellence are all in the present tense. With good reason. His charge up the career leader board — past Teemu Selanne, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Mark Messier into eighth — to 700 has come at a blinding pace. For Gretzky to go from 685 goals to 700, for instance, took 28 games and more than two months. For Ovechkin to cover the same territory took 14 games and about six weeks — with the all-star break in the middle.
“He’s fired up here, it seems to me,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “When you get to that age, sometimes the motivation is in and out. But I think he sees that he’s passing some unbelievable guys. Now he’s got a chance to cement his legacy, wherever he ends up. So I think that’s given him a little life at his age. He loves to score. And he brings that will to a game. You can tell when he’s getting willful. It’s evident in his body language. He’s bringing it right now.”
Which leads you to conclude that he will continue to bring it. It took Ovechkin 154 games to score the 100 goals between No. 600 and 700. That’s faster than he scored his first 100 (167 games). It’s faster than he went from 500 to 600 (189 games). Indeed, it’s the second-fewest number of games he has needed between century-mark goals, trailing only the 129 he needed between Nos. 100 and 200.
“We’re kind of numb to all of his records and maybe don’t appreciate them as much, just because it seems like every day it’s a new something-or-other,” defenseman John Carlson said. “But 700, as a kid, people don’t dream about scoring 700 goals in the NHL.”
Ovechkin is telling us, right now, to keep dreaming. He is scoring at this pace because he changed his off-ice training regimen, because his shot still blisters from the left faceoff circle, because he has earned the right to be on the ice in more situations, because he scores in different ways.
But there’s also a factor that’s more difficult to quantify. In the spring of 2018, the Capitals won the Stanley Cup. There is a direct line between that accomplishment and the 93 goals Ovechkin has scored in his 141 games since.
Imagine if Ovechkin was blowing by the names he’s passing now — Lemieux and Yzerman and Messier, with Mike Gartner’s 708 goals up next — and he hadn’t won that Cup. The narrative could be different: Fine, he’s a great individual player. But he has never achieved the ultimate team goal.
Instead, winning the Cup has had the opposite effect. Collective goal accomplished, his mind and spirit are freed up. Any individual mark he achieves just enhances his legacy because they can’t take that Cup away.
So, then . . . Gretzky? A little more than a year ago, Ovechkin said, “I don’t think it’s possible.”
Now? Now he has 700 goals. He is on pace to score an astonishing 57 this season. That would leave him at 715. Average 36 goals for five more seasons, and . . .
“It’s not impossible,” said his coach, Todd Reirden. “As long as his ultimate dream still is to win another Stanley Cup, then as a byproduct, he’s going to score. That’s why I think it’s possible. . . . Hockey, more than any other sport, if you have that team goal in mind, then individual numbers seem to follow.”
There are almost no words for the individual numbers Alex Ovechkin is putting up now. Blink and you will miss a goal. Take a nap and you will miss a milestone. With No. 700 in the books, we should make sure we appreciate what we’re watching without it being an appreciation for a career in full. There’s too much left to accomplish, both for the Capitals, chasing another Cup, and for Ovechkin, chasing both that and history.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.