ARLINGTON, Va. — Alex Ovechkin said he was aware he’d likely encounter some bumps in the road during his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky‘s NHL goals record even before he sustained a lower-body injury that has him a game-time decision for the Washington Capitals’ season opener against the New York Rangers at Capital One Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; TNT).
“Let’s don’t look too far,” Ovechkin said at the start of training camp. “Game by game, step by step.”
The left wing enters his 17th season sixth in NHL history with 730 goals, 165 away from breaking Gretzky’s record of 894. That’s an average of 33 goals per season over the five-year contract Ovechkin signed with Washington on July 27 with Gretzky’s record at least part of his motivation.
The 36-year-old led the Capitals with 24 goals in 45 games last season despite missing an NHL career-high 11 games. That’s a pace of 44 goals over 82 games, which the NHL will play this season after adjusting to a 56-game schedule last season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ovechkin practiced Tuesday for the first time since he was injured hitting Philadelphia Flyers forward Travis Konecny in Washington’s preseason finale Friday. He’s not expected to be out for long.
Still, it’s the kind of injury Gretzky warned could be Ovechkin’s biggest obstacle in chasing his record.
“Obviously, you’ve got to get a little bit lucky in a sense that you want to stay away from injuries as much as possible,” Gretzky said Oct. 6 while promoting his new role as a studio analyst for Turner Sports. “And I don’t just mean missing game injuries. I’m talking about nagging injuries where your knee is sore or your ankle is sore or your shoulder is sore, but you play through that.”
Ovechkin’s durability throughout his career has been almost as impressive as his goal-scoring prowess. Before a groin injury caused him to sit out seven times in an eight-game stretch from April 24-May 8 last season, Ovechkin hadn’t missed a game because of injury since a lower-body injury kept him out of a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild on March 5, 2015.
Before last season, when he also missed four games while in NHL COVID-19 protocol, Ovechkin hadn’t missed more than four games in a season since he missed 10 in 2009-10, including six with an upper-body injury and two two-game suspensions.
“Certainly, he probably he has a different tolerance than other people,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “That’s just based on the fact that guys get injured in this sport and guys play through injuries in this sport and you try to find the in-between.”
Ovechkin usually finds it. He attributed missing 11 games last season partly to not having a normal offseason to train before the season began Jan. 13 and a compacted schedule with fewer rest days.
“It was a short season. It was lots of games,” Ovechkin said. “All the things were happening because of that, because sometimes your body doesn’t recover well, and a little injury became difficult to recover [from].”
After Ovechkin had a more normal offseason to work with personal trainer Pavel Burlachenko, he arrived at training camp in excellent condition and focused on having a rebound season.
“I’m expecting him to be the player that he is,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “Every time he goes out on the ice, he tries to play the game hard. He tries to make a difference offensively. So I’m looking for that for him.”
Prior to last season, Ovechkin won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL goals leader in three straight seasons, increasing his record total to nine. That included 2019-20, when he tied David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins for the NHL lead with 48 goals in 68 games before the regular season was cut short by the pandemic.
With his next goal, Ovechkin will tie Marcel Dionne (731) for fifth on the NHL goals list. He’s 11 behind Brett Hull (741) for fourth, 36 behind Jaromir Jagr (766) for third and 71 behind Gordie Howe (801) for second.
“First of all, he’s definitely got a legitimate shot,” Gretzky said. “He’s got a great opportunity. He’s on a good team. He plays with really good centermen. He enjoys playing and loves playing in Washington. So he just has to be himself, go out there and play hard like he does every night.”
Since acknowledging that chasing Gretzky’s record factored into the length of his new contract, Ovechkin has tried to downplay expectations about it. But his teammates are thrilled about the possibility of being part of his ride toward history.
“It’s so cool,” linemate Tom Wilson said. “To watch it every day, to have a front-row seat to pass him the puck once in a while, it’s been one of the coolest things just to watch his journey since I’ve been here. And it seems like every couple of weeks he’s breaking a record. So I know that it’s going to be fun.”
Ovechkin’s priority is to help the Capitals add another Stanley Cup championship to the one they won in 2018. But the focus on his record chase will intensify with each goal he scores.
“I’ve said this before: I think if anyone can do it, it’s him,” said Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom, who will begin the season on long-term injured reserve with a left hip injury. “That’s the kind of hunger he’s got, and that’s the kind of goal-scorer he is.”