The goals are coming in bunches now, to the point where the Washington Capitals have three days off and you have to wonder if Alex Ovechkin will figure out a way to score even when there’s no game. He’s at 698 in his career, and the names he’s passed in the past month — Lemieux, Yzerman, Messier, undisputed hockey royalty — make eyebrows rise.
With 700 goals up next, it’s worth an analysis of how Ovechkin has done this and is still doing this: size, shot, skill, will and all the rest. But consider the following, too: When the Capitals next play, Saturday night against Philadelphia, Alex Ovechkin will be skating down the left wing. When they play after that, Monday against the New York Islanders, he’ll be on the power play. When the Caps play, he laces up his skates again and again and again.
I asked him the other day: Alex, how do you play every night? He looked me straight in the eye, confused.
“What do you mean?”
That’s pretty much what you need to know. It never occurs to him that — even at 34, even with a style that seems designed to break the body, not build it up — he shouldn’t play 80ish games a year. Evidently “load management” doesn’t translate into Russian.
The goals we know about. Since his rookie year, he had 243 more goals than his closest pursuer, archnemesis Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh. That’s remarkable domination. Put another way: No one is within 242 goals of Ovechkin, but 67 players are within 243 goals of Crosby. Knock that around in your brain for a second. Ovechkin is not just the leader. He’s an outlier.
The fact that Crosby is next on the list is appropriate. Both have played 15 seasons. The Capitals have played 1,168 games since Ovechkin entered the league; he has missed 31, a little more than a third of a season. Just two players, Patrick Marleau and Eric Staal, have laced them up more times that Ovechkin. The Penguins have played 1,166 games since Crosby debuted; he has missed 199, nearly two-and-a-half seasons.
“The way he plays the game and the fact that he misses so few games is a thing that has definitely shocked me,” said Todd Reirden, the Capitals head coach now but years ago an assistant with Crosby’s Penguins. “Having been on the other side, standing on the other bench, saying, ‘Is this guy ever going to miss some games?’”
Knock wood while reading this entire column if you must. But there’s a reason why 14 years ago, after he was hit hard by a puck in Colorado but practiced the next day in Vancouver, Ovechkin uttered the famous phrase, “Russian machine never breaks.” It became the clever title for an essential Caps blog. But all these years later, it’s also prophetic. It’s Ovechkin’s way of life.
Dig into these numbers, because they’re kind of fun. Ovechkin has missed four or fewer games in 14 of his 15 seasons. Crosby has missed more than four eight times. The most games Ovechkin ever missed came a decade ago, when a hit from Columbus’s Jason Chimera messed up his shoulder and cost him a couple weeks. He still played 72 times that year.
Durability. Availability. For all of Ovechkin’s tools, those are probably the most undervalued. They don’t show up on highlight reels. But they have to be among the most important.
“That’s why we practice all year, practicing during the summer, too,” Ovechkin said. “To get in good shape.”
There’s some truth to that, sure. But it’s not the whole picture, because it ignores Ovechkin’s style of play, which can be something like an ox that’s been stung by a bee. Yes, he’s adjusted — some. But when he was 24, there was no way to figure he would still be throwing his body around 80 times a year at 34. Yet look at the NHL leaders in hits this season: Through Tuesday’s games, Ovechkin ranks 14th with 139. He has 40 goals, most in the league. No one else among the top 49 players in hits has 40 points.
“For him, he knows what works for his body,” said Tom Wilson, who plays the opposite wing on Ovechkin’s line. “He doesn’t spend one day trying to be somebody other than himself. He’s true to himself. Some guys try to adapt throughout their career. He’s done that a little bit. But he also knows what works for him.”
There is good fortune in staying healthy for as long as Ovechkin has. Indeed, of those 31 games that he has missed, just 16 have been because of health. The others have been for a variety of suspensions — because he skipped the All-Star Game, because he charged a Pittsburgh player, because of a reckless hit in Chicago, because he overslept and was late for practice, etc. — and one because his grandfather died.
But just because he’s out there doesn’t mean he’s always healthy.
“He’s not afraid to play hurt,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “Some guys are like, ‘If I’m not 100 percent, I’m not playing.’ He’s played through injuries. He’s a little more old-school that way.”
He is eighth on the career goals list. No. 700 could come as soon as Saturday night. When it does, the tributes to his uncanny ability to score will continue to pour in. Appreciate the power and the subtlety that goes into all of them. But appreciate, too, the simple fact that when the Washington Capitals have a game, Alex Ovechkin nearly always plays. Skill and strength, fitness and fortune, they’re all factors. What results is a comfort — for his teammates, for his coaches, for his franchise, for his fans — that he’ll be out there, always.
“It just kind of goes along with the story of Alex Ovechkin and how he does things and the size he does it with and the way he plays the game,” Reirden said. “It’s not a soft game by any means. It’s pretty impressive and adds to the lore.”