March 31, 2019
USA Today Sports
TAMPA – On a night when Alex Ovechkin became the third-oldest player in NHL history – after Johnny Bucyk and Jaromir Jagr – to record a 50-goal season, his coach made a remarkable observation regarding arguably the greatest pure goalscorer of all time.
“His energy level is at an all-time high this year,” Washington Capitals coach Todd Reirden said of Ovechkin. “I think he’s really been a driving force for our team.”
Think about that for a minute. The man who sees Ovechkin play and practice day-in and day-out believes his superstar is playing with a higher energy level than ever these days. To be sure, winning the Stanley Cup last season took an enormous load off Ovechkin’s shoulders and, as a result, both he and the Capitals are playing with much more of a spring in their step. You could see their swagger when they jumped out into a 4-0 lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday night before Ovechkin sealed the deal with his 50th and 51stgoals in a 6-2 victory.
In light of Reirden’s observation, you have to wonder how many more 50-goal seasons Ovechkin has left in him. This season represents his eighth, which puts him one behind both Wayne Gretzky’s and Mike Bossy’s totals. He has all but clinched his eighth Rocket Richard Trophy, which would establish an NHL record for the number of seasons leading the league in goals. Jagr was 34 when he recorded his last 50-goal season and Bucyk was almost 36 when he hit the mark for the only time in his career. The way Ovechkin is scoring this season, he certainly doesn’t look as though his scoring touch is about to subside anytime soon.
“You think I know?” Ovechkin said when asked how many more 50-goal seasons he might have in him. “I don’t know. I just enjoy my time and enjoy playing hockey.”
With his two goals, Ovechkin moved ahead of Brendan Shanahan for 13th all-time in career goals, 10 behind Luc Robitaille. Another 50-goal season next year would vault him into seventh all-time. With three years left on his contract with Washington, Ovechkin will likely at the very least pose a serious threat to Jaromir Jagr at No. 3, who is only 35 goals behind Gordie Howe at No. 2. Ovechkin currently sits 143 goals behind Howe’s total of 801, which would mean he’d have to average 48 goals a season over the next three to catch Mr. Hockey. If he were to play another five seasons, that per-season total would drop to just 29.
“He never surprises me with what he does,” Reirden said. “Every day it’s something different. You see him the other night blocking shots 5-on-6, you see him being physical, you see his wall play and two-way play and when he gets his chance to convert, there’s very few like him for sure, if any. He has that knack for being able to find the back of the net and I think if he continues to stay healthy, which he’s been very fortunate to do, who knows where it will take him? He seems to be really enjoying the game and he’s enjoying our team and what we have going here.”
It was only fitting that in the second after Ovechkin scored his 50th Saturday night, he wiped out Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn, a 6-foot-5, 223-pounder, as though he were a lightweight. Earlier in the game, Ovechkin backchecked hard to catch Cedric Paquette on a shorthanded breakaway and the Capitals scored with the extra man 40 seconds later. As much as the goalscoring, teammates are marveling at how Ovechkin’s game has gained so much texture.
“What I admire about him is his ability to play so many types of games,” said linemate Tom Wilson. “He’s strong. He can finish checks, he’s dynamic. And on top of it, a pure goalscorer and probably the best goal scorer of our time and maybe of all-time. It’s a huge privilege to watch what he does. And I think something that goes under the radar a little bit how many games he’s played. He’s always in, he’s always playing hard. They haven’t been easy miles on him. He’s done it hard and he’s played that way for a long time and continues to blow the roof off as a goalscorer.”
Wilson is spot-on about Ovechkin when it comes to his durability. He has missed just 30 of the 1,111 games in which he’s been eligible to play in his career. That’s an attendance record of 97.3 percent. If he continues to show up for class that regularly and his scoring touch doesn’t abandon him, perhaps a run at Gretzky at No. 1 isn’t that far-fetched a notion after all.