Ovechkin climbing NHL goals list, defying age with Capitals

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Alex Ovechkin is turning back the clock while climbing the NHL goals list.

The captain of the Washington Capitals heads into the game at the Florida Panthers on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; BSFL, NBCSWA, ESPN+, NHL LIVE) leading the NHL with nine goals in nine games this season. He has scored 739 goals in his 17 seasons, putting him within two of tying Brett Hull (741) for fourth in NHL history.

Ovechkin has downplayed his pursuit of Hull, saying, “It is what it is. You just go and do everything that you can.”

But the 36-year-old has started this season playing with a drive and producing at a level that defies his age.

Before being held without a point in a 3-2 loss at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, Ovechkin scored at least one point in each of the first eight games of the season (nine goals, six assists). That tied the Capitals record for the longest point streak to begin a season he set as a 20-year-old rookie in 2005-06 and equaled by forward Alexander Semin in 2006-07.

Eight games also tied the fewest Ovechkin needed to score 15 points in his NHL career from 2009-10, when he was 24. By scoring his eighth goal of the season against the Detroit Red Wings on Oct. 27, he became the second player in NHL history to score at least eight goals in the first seven games at age 35 or older, joining Maurice Richard (eight goals in the first seven games in 1957-58).

Ovechkin was named the NHL First Star of the Month for October.

“He looks younger, I think. I don’t know how that’s possible,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “He plays with such vigor and energy. It’s pretty cool to watch, as long as you’re not on the bench coaching against him, how excited he still gets to score. I think it’s awesome.”

Ovechkin hasn’t found the Fountain of Youth but returning to his regular offseason program with personal trainer Pavel Burlachenko had him primed physically for the start of the season. 

The coronavirus pandemic created uncertainty that made it difficult to time his training leading up to the start of last season, which was delayed until Jan. 13. Although Ovechkin led the Capitals with 24 goals in 45 games, he was unable to find a consistent rhythm and missed an NHL career-high 11 games, four while in NHL COVID-19 protocol and seven with a groin injury, the first time in five seasons he missed a game because of injury.

Having a more normal offseason to train enabled Ovechkin to better gear up for the start, and the long grind, of the season.

“It helps a lot,” Ovechkin said. “Me and my trainer Pavel, we always knew what we had to do just to get prepared for the year. It’s going to be a long season with (the 2022 Beijing Olympics) and the (Stanley Cup Playoffs) and we kind of just got back to a routine. … Obviously, it helps when you know what exactly is going to happen during the whole the year, so I think we did a very good job in training camp.”

Video: The guys discuss Alexander Ovechkin’s early success

From Washington’s season opener against the New York Rangers on Oct. 13, when Ovechkin scored twice to pass Marcel Dionne (731) for fifth in goals, he’s looked like the player who scored 48 in 68 games in 2019-20 to tie Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak for the NHL lead. Ovechkin’s breakaway goal in the second period of a 7-5 win against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 25 provided additional evidence that he’s found an extra gear that was missing last season.

Late in a shift, Ovechkin blocked a shot by Senators defenseman Nikita Zaitsev at the right point in the Washington zone, chased down the loose puck at the Ottawa blue line and skated in alone on goalie Filip Gustavsson before sliding the puck between his pads to give the Capitals a 6-5 lead. 

“It seems like he is in a real good spot,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He is playing with pace. He is finding himself with the puck on his stick a lot. Again, it was more a normal routine for him throughout the summer coming into training camp. He had a good training camp and he’s off and running.”

Wanting to feed the hot stick, Laviolette has double shifted Ovechkin at times. He leads Capitals forwards and is eighth among NHL forwards averaging 21:23 of ice time.

Ovechkin said he also credits linemates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson for helping him elevate his game. Kuznetsov has scored 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in nine games and, though Wilson has yet to score his first goal of the season, he has seven assists.

“Obviously ‘Kuzy’ right now is feeling it and ‘Willie’ is always Willie,” Ovechkin said. “He’s always going, and I just try to find the open spot and put the puck in.”

Conversely, Kuznetsov and Wilson have been trying to get the puck to Ovechkin as often as possible because they can see how much he wants it. Although Ovechkin deflects talk about catching Hull and eventually trying to chase down Wayne Gretzky‘s NHL record of 894 goals, anytime he nears a milestone or is close to passing another player on the goal list, his determination to do it quickly is obvious.

“I think he’s been a shark on blood for years now, probably his whole career.” Wilson said. “Some guys around the League, they’ll score one goal and they’re satisfied with it for the night. You score two, OK, great night. If he scores two, he wants three. He scores three, he wants four. He scores four, he wants five. 

“And when he’s chasing these guys, when he scores goals, he just gets hungrier and hungrier.”

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