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700 down, 194 to go: Ovechkin’s ‘legitimate chance’ at Gretzky’s goal record

The chase officially began the moment Alex Ovechkin‘s 700th NHL goal crossed the goal line behind the Devils’ Mackenzie Blackwood in Newark. Shattering Wayne Gretzky’s sacred record of 894 career goals is an ambition that has shifted from possibility to probability. Ovechkin is 34. He hasn’t missed a game to injury since 2016.

The chase is on.

“If anybody’s going to do it, it’s obviously him,” said Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, who was an 8-year-old when Ovechkin scored his first NHL goal in October 2005. “I think he can break that record. And it’s going to be pretty sweet to see it.”

Ovechkin has acknowledged the chase. “It would be nice. I’m not going to lie,” Ovechkin told ESPN late last season. “But it’s still a long way to go.”

Gretzky, who retired in 1999 at age 38, has acknowledged the chase, saying it would be “great for the sport” and that he would be the first to shake Ovechkin’s hand were he to become the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer.

“I’m a big believer that records are made to be broken,” Gretzky told NHL.com at the All-Star Game. “What I accomplished, I’m very proud of. It’s hard to do what I did, and it’s really hard to do what he’s doing now. But there’s no question in my mind that he has a real legitimate chance of doing it. The two things that you need; you’ve got to stay healthy, and he’s proven that over his career. He plays hard and he stays healthy. And, secondly, you’ve got to be on a good team — and he plays on a good team.”

It’s impossible not to acknowledge the chase, because the math fuels it.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, if Ovechkin maintains his career average of 0.61 goals per game, he would pass Gretzky during the 2023-24 season when he’s 38 years old. If he slows to 0.50 goals per game, he would break Gretzky’s record at age 39 during the 2024-25 season.

“We’re used to hearing the crazy stats about him all the time. And it becomes normal, even though it’s far from it,” said Capitals defenseman John Carlson, Ovechkin’s teammate since 2010. “I think you take it for granted a little bit, what kind of career he’s had.”

The hallmarks of Ovechkin’s career — the way he scores, his durability and his temperament — have some of the best goal scorers in NHL history convinced he can break Gretzky’s record.

“I really believe that it’s possible, and I never thought it was going to be possible,” said Bernie Federko, a Hockey Hall of Famer. “You look at the numbers that Wayne put up, you think, ‘No one is ever going to score that many goals.’ But the way Alex shoots the puck, the way he always hits the net, the fact that he always keeps himself in good shape … he has the possibility of doing it.”

The shot

The differences between Ovechkin and Gretzky are stark, and not just because one is a Russian rock star and the other is a Canadian hockey deity.

As goal scorers, Ovechkin is a winger with a hard, seemingly unstoppable shot, while Gretzky was a center whose shot velocity meant “you could wear driving gloves and catch one of his shots, and it wouldn’t hurt,” according to former NHL goalie Chico Resch.

“If you sat down and said, ‘Name the four best goal scorers in hockey,’ my name probably wouldn’t come up. My playmaking has probably overshadowed my goal scoring a little bit,” Gretzky told Sports Illustrated in 1994. “Some guys are just pure goal scorers. I don’t know if I was a pure goal scorer. I didn’t have a very hard shot.”

Ovechkin, in contrast, does. (He won the NHL All-Star Game hardest shot competition at 101.3 MPH in 2018.) But it’s not just the speed of the shot but the volume and the accuracy. Ovechkin has led the NHL in shots on goal 11 times, and he leads the league again this season. Gretzky, the man who coined the mantra, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” only led the league in shots four times.

Gretzky said the key to Ovechkin’s scoring prowess is that “he hits the net all the time,” and frequently from the same area of the ice: the left circle of the offensive zone, better known as “The Ovi Spot.” As of March 2019, 43.4% of his goals had been scored from that location, per NHL.com.

“The way he shoots the puck … on the power play, he scores a lot of goals from the same area. It’s a pretty indefensible play. I mean, 700 goals is a lot of goals,” said Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane.

No one has scored more power-play goals than Ovechkin in the past 30 years. They account for about 37% of his goal total — Gretzky’s power-play goals accounted for 22.8% of his career haul.

“It truly amazes me what Ovi’s been able to do. I mean, he stands in the same spot, basically,” said Federko. “He’s a shooter. I think guys like that are really in tune to what they’re doing. He’s a natural goal scorer. It’s mechanical. He’s learned so much. It’s really in the same spot, but he floats around and finds the soft spots. And he’s able to get the shots every time.”

Evgeny Kuznetsov has played with Ovechkin since 2013-14, bearing witness to that shot on a nightly basis. “When you’re watching the tape, you still don’t know how that puck goes in,” he said. “But he’s hungry for those goals. There’s something inside him where he knows where he always has to be. I think you have to be born with it. That taste inside you. You want to score, you want to score, you want to score.”

Some players are just simply born with it, which is why so many of Ovechkin’s peers — and opponents — are in awe of his offensive output.

“It’s an honor to share the ice with him and watch him write his own history,” said Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel. “I think he has a chance. He’s got [fewer than] 200 goals to go. I can’t imagine him not playing four more years and getting 50 goals a year. He’s not slowing down at all.”

Eichel entered the NHL in 2015-16, discovering a league that was faster, younger and more offensively inclined than it had been in 20 years. But also featuring goalies well ahead of their counterparts in the 1980s.

“What [Ovechkin] has been able to do, year in and year out, I don’t think anyone has ever seen it [before]. Especially in this day and age. Nowadays, you look at the goalies … you guys interview them. You see how big they are, and their gear. It’s so hard to score in this league,” Eichel said.

“It’s just such a statement about what he’s doing. That doesn’t take away from what people did before. We’re using composite sticks, and they didn’t. There’s so many variables that go into it. Nowadays, speaking for his consistency of scoring and other teams knowing what he’s going to do and he still does it … it’s just so impressive.”

Therein lies the other juxtaposition between Ovechkin and Gretzky. Between his first and last 40-plus-goal campaign, Gretzky never played in a season with an average team goals per game less than 3.46 league-wide. Last season was only the second time in Ovechkin’s 15-season career that the team goals per game rate broke 3.00. The goalies are better. The athletes are better.

“We’re very proud of our era. But the game itself is better than it was in the 1980s,” Gretzky told SportsPulse in 2019. “It’s tougher to score now. I’m the first guy to sit here and tell you that I played in the right era. It’s harder to score points now than when I played.”

Hall of Famer Mike Bossy finished second to Gretzky in goals scored from 1979 to ’89, with 451 in 599 games.

“I hate comparing eras. Everyone played in their own era. Who knows what kind of shape Ovi would have been in had he played during my day? Or if he played with a wooden stick? Or if he played with the red line in?” said Bossy, referencing the rules change that allowed two-line passes that was adopted before Ovechkin’s rookie season. “So I hate comparing eras, with Ovi or with myself or with anyone that came in between. Goal scorers are goal scorers no matter when they played.”

Does Bossy think Ovechkin can set an NHL goal-scoring record?

“A lot of people have been asking me if he can get to Gretzky’s goal mark, and my answer is that if he wants to, I think he can,” Bossy said. “If he stays healthy.”

The durability

In October 2006, Ovechkin was hit on the ankle by a shot from Capitals teammate Shaone Morrisonn. He limped off the ice to the dressing room. There was concern that his sophomore season could be derailed by an unfortunate friendly-fire injury, but Ovechkin played in Washington’s next game.

The reason, according to his now-famous quote delivered to the media?

“Russian machine never breaks.”

The next 14 seasons have supported this. Ovechkin has missed more than four games in a season once. Since 2016, he’s missed three games to injury, and two to suspension for skipping the All-Star Game. Only Patrick Marleau (1,148) and Eric Staal (1,144) have played more games than Ovechkin (1,135) since he entered the league.

“Mother Nature gave me a hell of a body. My parents, or whatever. I got lucky. It’s a tough sport. Anything can happen out there,” Ovechkin told ESPN. “I changed my training last couple of years. My training, not my diet. I’m not a big diet fan. I tried to diet once. Didn’t work well.”

Of course, durability becomes more of a concern with age. Ovechkin turns 35 on Sept. 17, 2020, and he’s played a brand of heavy hockey throughout his career.

“I think in the end, what’s going to be the most telling thing about Ovi is his longevity, playing the way that he does. He really hasn’t changed his style of play over the years. Still hits as much,” said Bossy.

Only five players in NHL history have scored more than 150 goals after turning 35 — Teemu Selanne (232), Mark Messier (171), Brett Hull (155), Jaromir Jagr (154) and Mark Recchi (153) — and all but Jagr are in the Hall of Fame. (Jagr, 47, has continued his career in the Czech Republic.)

Carlson believes that Ovechkin’s age is part of his motivation.

“Once in a while he’s got to let people know when they’re saying he’s getting too old,” he said. “He certainly hasn’t slowed down at all in his career, so I don’t expect him to [slow down] any time soon. He’s a treat to watch, to learn from and to play with. He has a legitimate chance at the record. He’s put himself in a position to do so.”

The mentality

In 1986, Bossy became the fastest player in NHL history to hit 500 goals, needing just 647 games. But chasing Gordie Howe’s scoring record along with Gretzky wasn’t in the cards, as he retired in 1987 because of injuries after 10 years in the league.

“From a personal standpoint, I didn’t start my career wanting to play 20 years in the National Hockey League. Don’t ask me why. I didn’t know how long I wanted to play. When I started, my goal was to play 10 years and score 50 goals every year. Because of injury, I only played 10 years and missed out on the 50 goals one year because of the injury,” said Bossy. “If I would have been healthy, I’m sure I would have continued playing a little. And if the numbers would have kept on mounting, I know myself enough where if I was approaching something of that sort I would have considered it. But it’s all hypothetical. I never realistically entered that mindset.”

Ovechkin is obviously in that mindset, now that Gretzky’s record is on the horizon. The closest Bossy came to a record was in 1981, when he became the second player in NHL history at the time to score 50 goals in 50 games.

“I went through it one season, where I got the 50-in-50, and everyone was thinking I was going to beat Phil Esposito’s record of 76 goals [in a season] — that was before Gretzky started scoring an obscene amount of goals every year,” Bossy said. “I remember answering those questions a lot, so I can imagine Ovi’s going to go through having to answer those questions for as long as he continues to play.”

Federko grew up an admirer of Gordie Howe, and because of the legend’s longevity, he was briefly his contemporary. When Gretzky was chasing Howe’s record, Federko wasn’t convinced he would break it, because he wondered if the attention would break him.

“We didn’t know. There was so much attention on him. People are usually pretty right when they spot someone that’s really special, and he had so much press,” Federko said. “But you look at the pressure that Wayne had on him. Was he going to live up to that hype? But he showed everybody they were absolutely right in thinking what they did.”

Sports fans have seen many elite athletes crack under the weight of history. There’s a reason Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak has stood as a Major League Baseball record since 1941, a reason no one has seriously threatened it since 1978. Not only does it take extraordinary skill to set a mark like that, but it takes exceptional mental fortitude to assail it.

But Bossy thinks goal scorers like Ovechkin are different. There’s a belief that’s inherent to them, where slumps and slowdowns don’t frustrate them for too long.

“You know, I think he’s like a lot of other goal scorers. We were in Washington earlier this season, and we pulled up his stats,” Bossy said. “He had like five goals in his last 15 games. He wasn’t on pace to do much of anything. Then all of a sudden he can put together a string of seven or eight games where he’s going to get 10 or 12 goals. Goal scorers are like that. They go on streaks. They get that boost of confidence. Not only does that go throughout the year, it goes throughout your career. You finish a season with 50 or 60 goals, and you’re like ‘Oh s—, I can do this again next year.’ He’s in that mode.”

Kuznetsov has marveled at that consistency and Ovechkin’s drive.

“It’s hard to be motivated in his position, probably. He already scored a lot of goals. But he’s still going out there. Still focusing on the goals. That’s really hard to do,” he said. “Every player sees the hockey differently, right? But for him, he knows where he has to be, and where he’s shooting. It’s something that’s pretty much impossible to learn. You have to be born with it.”

What if Ovechkin tops Gretzky? What if that mechanical, unstoppable shot, combined with his durability and mental toughness, gets him to 895 goals or more? What if the Great 8 overthrows The Great One atop the all-time goals list?

“You’re probably never going to see me on the ice again. [Retirement] right away. See ya,” Ovechkin told ESPN earlier this season, laughing.

Kuznetsov believes that if Ovechkin breaks the record, it will be his record for quite a long time.

“The people that follow him and follow the hockey league know that he’s so close right now. Not just to Gretzky, but to [outscoring] every player that’s probably ever going to play hockey again,” he said. “And I don’t think there are any players in the next 50 years, maybe 100 years, that are going to reach that milestone. It’s that impossible.”

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