Alex Ovechkin was having a quiet night.
Through two periods of action Tuesday, he’d registered a solitary shot attempt that sailed wide, two hits and one giveaway.
That was it.
Then, as he’s done so many times, the sniper for the Washington Capitals exploded in jaw-dropping fashion.
Ovechkin’s first goal tied the game against the Los Angeles Kings 2-2 with 6:50 left in regulation. The next came 70 seconds later to give his team its first lead. And he then finished things off into an empty net.
Three goals in four minutes 24 seconds. Three hat tricks in his last six games. Fourteen goals in his last seven outings, and 16 in his last 10, to give him 698 in an already-storied career.
The 34-year-old Russian could become the eighth player in NHL history to reach 700 goals as soon as Saturday at home against the Philadelphia Flyers.
“If you’re going to think about it too much, you’re never going to get it,” Ovechkin said. “So I have to go out there and play.”
He moved ahead of Mark Messier for eighth all-time last week with two goals against the Ottawa Senators before Tuesday’s natural hat trick got him within 10 goals of Mike Gartner’s 708.
WATCH | Ovechkin overtakes Messier in all-time goals:
Ovechkin, who jumped over Boston Bruins winger David Pastrnak into first in the 2019-20 goals race with 40, could get all the way into a tie for sixth on the all-time list before the end of the regular-season schedule — Phil Esposito currently occupies that spot with 717 — if he finds the back of the net 19 times over his final 28 games.
Washington’s captain has led the NHL in goals six of the last seven seasons, and has won the Rocket Richard Trophy eight times since coming into the league in 2005-06.
Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals looked untouchable in an era where it’s much more difficult to score, but Ovechkin now finds himself just 196 back — with no signs of slowing down — despite missing 1 1/2 seasons due to labour stoppages.
Next gen takes notice
“If anybody’s going to do it, it’s obviously him,” said Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews, 22, who sat third in goals with 37 this season heading into Wednesday. “I’ve been watching him since I was a kid. He’s an amazing player.
“When it’s all said and done he could probably break that record. It would be pretty sweet to see.”
Ovechkin has scored at least 40 goals 11 times, including 49 and 51 the last two seasons. He needed 190 games to go from 500 goals to 600 goals, but it’s taken him just 147 contests get from 600 to 698.
And only Gretzky has recorded more 40-goal seasons (12).
“It’s impressive,” Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid said. “He just seems ageless.”
The 23-year-old said he’s followed Ovechkin’s career closely because it’s run side-by-side with his childhood idol.
“I was actually always a big Sidney Crosby fan,” McDavid said. “He was a guy that, when you talk about Sid, you always had to talk about Ovechkin.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he’s done and what he continues to do.”
Washington head coach Todd Reirden said Ovechkin has kept growing as a player — he doesn’t just rely on his patented one-timer from the left faceoff circle — into his mid-30s.
“I don’t see any reason that he’s going to stop this quest to get as high as he can in the goal-scoring ranks,” said Reirden, who was an assistant when Washington won its first Stanley Cup in 2018. “The last two years have been the happiest I’ve seen him day in and day out. It’s no coincidence that his play has matched in terms of his consistency.
“That’s a credit to him.”
Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot had a front-row seat to watch Ovechkin pass Messier on Friday in Ottawa.
“You hate seeing it against you, but it’s just incredible,” said Chabot, 23. “He’s done it over and over and over. There’s some crazy records in the NHL … to see him working his way slowly to the top is impressive.”
Ovechkin chose to skip last month’s NHL all-star game in St. Louis, but commissioner Gary Bettman still paid tribute to the Great Eight as he chases the Great One.
“It’s incredible. It’s exciting,” Bettman said. “It’s a testament both to Wayne’s record that it seems to have been unapproachable until now and it’s a testament to Alex Ovechkin and his amazing career so far, and one that we hope continues for a number of years.”
Ovechkin has tried to shy away from talk about climbing the goal ladder and zeroing in on records.
There’s work to do.
“It’s nice in that company,” Ovechkin said. “Lots of legends up there.”
He can start counting himself among them.