LOS ANGELES – Nolan Ryan’s ambition was simple. Ride in baseball on the vapor trail of your fastball. Exit the game in the same way.
Alex Ovechkin does the same.
He was first drafted by the Washington Capitals in 2005 and he scored 52 goals as a rookie. Eight times Ovechkin has scored at least 50 runs in a season. At 36, he has 12 in the Capitals’ first 16 appearances. Get ready, aim, other than that it’s like a readymifire. The inevitability isn’t hard to predict, but it’s hard to beat.
Ovechkin made his first visit to the Staples Center in two years on Wednesday night, when Washington visited the Kings.
“What do I appreciate about him? He entertains,” said Kings coach Todd McClellan. “And he doesn’t slow down. That’s why this talk of getting closer to his way and his record is gaining momentum. And that would be great for the sport and the league. I just wish he wasn’t so amusing against us.
Wayne coming? Pure condemnation. Gretzky has a hammer on every important offensive record in NHL history, including setting the record for the most. Ovechkin now has 742 goals, 152 less than Gretzky’s NHL mark.
Considering Ovechkin’s score of 40 this season, he would still need to equal a 31-goal average in the four remaining seasons of his new contract.
And yet Brett Hull, whom Ovechkin had just passed on the goals list, scored 39 at age 36, and Jaromir Jagger at Ovechkin’s age scored 46. Jager stopped at 766, provided he actually stopped. He is in third place ahead of Ovechkin.
This year Ovechkin has averaged more snow time than in any season since 2010. He has never played less than 71 games in a normal-length season and has played 80 or more seven times and all 68 on the schedule two seasons ago. He’s not gliding and dodging engines the way Gretzky did. He’s playing in tricky and dark places and, as TV analyst Pierre McGuire used to say, he “hits to hurt.”
Brent Johnson was a goalkeeper for the Capitals when Ovechkin broke through. He now coaches the Capitals youth team.
“I don’t know if he’s going to get there, but he certainly isn’t slowing down,” Johnson said. “He’s hard as a rock. No matter where you touch him, he’s like iron.
“Let’s face it. If you play 82 games, you’re taking the crap out on your own. It doesn’t take its toll on him at all. He can’t be taught what he does. Most people try to lie down. And make sure he doesn’t fool them. They do that and he fools them anyway.”
The signature is a blast from the left, often on the power play, often facilitated by power-play quarterback John Carlson. Ovechkin needed four power-play goals to break Dave Andrychuk’s NHL career record of 274.
“If he gets five or six chances in a game, he’s going to score one or two, let’s face it,” McClellan said. “The best strategy is to just stay out of the box. You try to find him, but it’s not a very difficult thing to do. You know where he’ll be.”
But there were times when Ovechkin had to fight league-wide doubters, somehow fighting his way through the playoff Blues. Three times, Washington lost Game 7s to the New York Rangers. Three times, the caps were bounced off by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sidney Crosby, who seemed to be the leader and winner who was not Ovechkin.
It disappeared in 2018 when the Caps won the Stanley Cup and Ovechkin launched himself into a three-day orgy through bars, restaurants, the Tidal Basin and everywhere else that wasn’t locked.
“I might not see him for months, but when I do, we pick up where we left off,” Johnson said. “He’s still very excited when he scores. But when someone else scores he also gets excited. He has so much energy, he never stops. Anyone who said he helped this team To carry in a cup was not enough as a leader, they knew nothing about him.”
Players can only be judged in their time. One can only imagine how Ovechkin used to thrive in the 1980s, when the game was far less technical and structured and the goalkeepers were naked by comparison.
As Ovechkin began in neutral-field timing of a two-line pass and grab, the stretch went into the timing of the pass and interference call, and remained supreme.
Iron is more powerful than change.