TAMPA – Alex Ovechkin, in conversation, a year ago:
“I want to someday be in a position to play just for myself and my numbers, but I want to win. That’s the whole thing. That’s the most important thing for me. I don’t want to be selfish. I don’t have a Cup yet, so that’s my goal.”
Alex Ovechkin, in conversation, today:
“Records is one thing, but when you get a taste of the Cup you just want to repeat it. I think we’re capable of doing it.”
Turns out finally getting that elusive championship in Year 13 of his career didn’t quench the thirst after all. Ovechkin unofficially enjoyed being The Guy With The Stanley Cup more than any player in NHL history after winning it last year, so he’s not, as originally predicted, free to focus on chasing milestones. The feeling of winning just makes him want it that much more, and he certainly has a chance to recapture it. His Washington Capitals lead the Metropolitan Division, which projects as the easier of the two Eastern Conference playoff brackets. The Caps are easily the favorite to reach the final four coming out of their division.
Another reason why goals records aren’t the first thing on Ovechkin’s mind, of course, is fatherhood. His wife Nastya Ovechkina gave birth to their first child, a son named Sergei, last August. The parenting experience isn’t quite normal for any pro athlete given the travel, but Ovechkin hunkers down for the domestic dad life whenever possible.
“It’s so exciting,” he said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to go home and play with the kid.”
So far, so good with the shuteye situation. Ovechkin says Sergei sleeps well and jokes that he “knows the rules.”
So it’s believable when Ovechkin implies the personal milestones aren’t priority No. 1. And yet, even if he doesn’t feel ready to focus on them, they’re practically flashing in big, neon lights in front of his face. He sits one goal away from reaching 50 goals for an eighth time, which would bring him to within one of tying Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky’s shared record of nine.
“If it happens, it happens,” Ovechkin said. “If not, I’m not going to be disappointed. I’ve been there lots of times. It’s a pretty cool number, obviously, but I’m just gonna try to do my thing.”
But even he can’t ignore the more significant milestone looming. He currently holds a two-goal lead on Edmonton Oilers center Leon Draisaitl for first in the NHL. Ovechkin and Bobby Hull share the record for most times leading the league in goals at seven. No player has ever done it eight times. Ovechkin admits “it would be pretty cool” to do it but points out how many games remain in the season. That’s fair. In a goal-scoring race this tight, another week of hockey is an eternity.
Whether he does it or not, it’s getting tougher for even the biggest Gretzky, Bossy or Hull truthers to deny Ovechkin’s case as the best goal-scorer of all-time, especially factoring in era.
“I’ve had a front-row seat to it for six years now,” said Capitals right winger and Ovechkin linemate Tom Wilson. “It’s unbelievable the rate and the execution he has all season long every year. That consistency and the amount of time that he’s played, the games that he’s played, it’s truly something special. Probably the best goal-scorer of our time. I don’t want to piss off all the alumni, but his numbers speak for themselves. And it’s been exciting to watch him.”
The Capitals visit the first-overall Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday night. Blueliner Anton Stralman was questionable to play but had time to talk Ovechkin. Stralman’s as big of an expert as you’ll find on what it’s like facing Ovechkin, as Stralman plays the right side opposite Ovechkin’s left wing, and the two have locked horns in many playoff series over the years between Stralman’s tenures with the New York Rangers and Lightning. He doesn’t hesitate when put on the spot with the question: is Ovechkin the best ever at putting the puck in the net?
“It doesn’t matter where he is, what opportunity you give him,” Stralman said. “When you have that shot – it’s not just from the top-left circle that scores. He scores from angles. He scores in front of the net. And it’s not just his shot. It’s the whole package. You can have that shot and never get in the shooting areas, but his speed, his power, his brute force takes him in there. And it’s hard to stop a guy like that.”
Ovechkin has cooled off a bit while he chases goal No. 50, scoring once in his past six games, but we can bet on 50 arriving any day now. The brute force will take over sooner rather than later. And it won’t be long before he can shelf the milestone talk and start the quest to quench that Cup thirst again.