Alex Ovechkin is ready to resume his climb up the NHL goals list when the Washington Capitals play their season-opening game against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; SN360, SNE, SNO, MSG-B, NBCSWA, NHL.TV).
Before last season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, Ovechkin reached eighth place with 706, two behind Mike Gartner for seventh. Even with this season shortened to 56 games, Ovechkin could be in fourth place by the time it’s over.
The 35-year-old left wing is 11 goals behind Phil Esposito (717) for sixth, 25 behind Marcel Dionne (731) for fifth and 35 behind Brett Hull (741) for fourth.
“Whatever goals I score, there’s nothing you can do [about] it,” Ovechkin said after the morning skate Thursday. “If I score 10, I score 10. If I score 20, I score 20. But I’m just going to try to do my best and hope it’s going to be a regular season.”
Over his first 15 NHL seasons, Ovechkin has scored 11 goals in season-opening games, most among active players and three behind Dino Ciccarelli (14 goals in 16 season-openers) and Michel Goulet (14 goals in 13 games) for most in NHL history. That includes the hat trick he scored in Washington’s 2017-18 season opener against the Ottawa Senators.
Ovechkin scored 48 goals in 68 games last season, tying Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak for the NHL lead but two shy of his ninth 50-goal season. That would’ve tied the NHL record shared by Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.
Scoring 50 this season will be a tall order with 26 fewer games. But scoring 35 goals in a 56-game season and catching Hull would be the equivalent of scoring 51 in an 82-game season. If Ovechkin maintains his pace of 0.71 goals per game from last season and plays in every game, he’d score 40 goals this season.
Longtime linemate Nicklas Backstrom conservatively predicted Ovechkin will score 35 this season.
“But I’m putting it low,” the Capitals center said. “So hopefully it’s over that.”
Ovechkin has scored 706 goals in 1,152 regular-season games, all with the Capitals, who selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NHL Draft. He scored his 700th goal against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 22, 2020 to become the eighth player in NHL history to reach the milestone, joining Gartner, Esposito, Dionne, Hull, Jaromir Jagr (766) Gordie Howe (801) and Wayne Gretzky (894).
Gartner, who scored 708 goals in 1,432 regular-season games over 19 NHL seasons before retiring in 1998, figured Ovechkin was going to fly past him last season and quickly move on to chasing 800. After that milestone, Gretzky’s record will be within his sights.
“Without a doubt, Alex has all of the tools to make that happen,” said Gartner, a 2001 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee. “Some guys you say, ‘That guy is scoring a lot of goals, but he is going to slow down.’ … Every athlete will always slow down near the end of their careers, we all know that, and it will for him, too. It just doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen right yet.
“So he’s going to pack a whole bunch more goals on there before that time comes.”
Wondering when age will catch up to Ovechkin has proved to be a futile endeavor. Some thought his downslide started when he scored 33 goals in 2016-17, his fewest in a full NHL season. But Ovechkin rebounded to lead the NHL the next two seasons with 49 goals in 2017-18, 51 in 2018-19 before tying Pastrnak last season. He’s scored 148 goals the past three seasons combined, 27 more than Pastrnak for most in the NHL over that span.
The more immediate question is how much longer Ovechkin plans to continue playing with his contract set to expire after this season. He and the Capitals have yet to begin negotiating an extension, but they plan to during the season.
“Everybody has down times. He’s not exempt to that,” NBC Sports analyst and former NHL forward Eddie Olczyk said. “But he’s obviously been as consistent as anybody we’ve had in the League. … It’s hard not to look at him and a guy like Mike Bossy back in the day, [Gartner] or somebody like that who just score 30, 35, 40 goals every season. Ovi is obviously at another level and Mike Bossy (too).
“But Ovi has been super consistent and still loves to score, and I think everybody still loves to watch him put that puck in the back of the net.”