As Alex Ovechkin keeps racking up goals, a lot of focus around him has been on his climb up the all-time goals list. As he chases Wayne Gretzky's goal record, a record that has long been considered impossible, you could excuse Ovechkin for shooting at every conceivable opportunity. Yet, through 20 games, Ovechkin has been racking up even more assists than goals. Wednesday's 6-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens is a good example. Ovechkin recorded three points in the game, all assists.
"I give puck to [Evgeny Kuznetsov], [John Carlson] score and I pass it to Carly, Kuzy score so secondary assists," Ovechkin said. "I’ll take it.”
Ovechkin now has 18 assists for the season, tied for second in the league. He also now sits second in the NHL in points with 33 points.
Thirty-three points at the age of 36, 18 of them assists. Who would have thought that?
"He's rolling," head coach Peter Laviolette said. "He's still shooting too, it's not like he couldn't have scored tonight. He's still unleashing."
Ovechkin has been a very good set-up player throughout his career, more so than he is given credit for. He surpassed 50 assists three different seasons over his career and now has 608 total.
"He’s been great all of his career," Dmitry Orlov said. "He’s got a lot of points, goals and assists, and he’s a superstar, so what can you say, you know?”
But Ovechkin managed only 18 assists in 45 games in 2021 and 19 assists in 68 games in the 2020-21 season. Just 20 games into the 2021-22 season, he already has 18. So what's changed?
Ovechkin was unsure of how to answer when asked how he managed to keep up with points and the speed of the game at 36.
"I try to do my job and I think our line play well and if we play like that everybody going to get points," he said.
Clearly, Ovechkin has benefitted from the more normal schedule and from a set start date to the season. That has improved his game overall. When it comes to assists specifically, however, Ovechkin seems to be taking advantage of the extra attention his chase of Gretzky has gained of late.
"I think that just based on the fact that the puck's on his stick, you have to assume that he's shooting the puck," Laviolette said.
“I think he gets always a lot of attention when he has the puck," Orlov said, "And people think he’s going to take a shot and all D-men who play against him try to block it and put a stick on stick and it might go on top of the net, but the other guy is open and he makes a nice pass."
When the puck is on Ovechkin's stick, everyone expects him to shoot. He loves to shoot, he loves to score, and with Gretzky's record getting closer and closer, it would make sense that he would take every opportunity he could to put the puck on net.
But in each game, winning remains the main goal for Ovechkin so when he sees an opportunity to set up a teammate for a better opportunity, he takes it.
On Wednesday, Cole Caufield scored late in the second period to cut the Capitals' lead down to 4-2. At that point, the next goal became critical.
"When you're sitting at that score, you know that next goal's a big goal," Laviolette said. "It's either going to make it exciting or it's going to push it out of reach."
Early in the third period, Ovechkin and Tom Wilson broke out of the defensive zone to launch a 2-on-1 break. With the puck on his stick, goalie Jake Allen squared up for the shot and defenseman Chris Wideman gave up the passing lane to cheat closer to Ovechkin. Ovechkin took advantage and fed Wilson for the wide-open goal.
"Really good play by [Ovechkin], unselfish play," Laviolette said. "The right play and Tom was wide open for it, backdoor pass."
He added, "I always think there's that area where you've got to make the right decision. It can't just be about one thing or the other thing so he's done a really good job of that. He's made the right calls and the right plays and that was a perfect example."