WASHINGTON – The moment came 10 years and a day ago against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Alex Ovechkin skates up the middle of the ice, cuts hard to the right and into the offensive zone and before anyone knows what’s happened he’s whipped a wrist shot into the net. Blink, and you missed it.
That was vintage Ovechkin on March 19, 2009. It was his 50th goal. And it set off a firestorm of sorts when he celebrated by laying his stick on the ice and pretending it was too hot to touch. The “hot stick” was born.
Of course, it inspired a wave of indignation, too. Former Lightning coach Rick Tocchet, now the head coach of the Arizona Coyotes, said it was “hard for me to accept in our building.” CBC Hockey Night in Canada personality Don Cherry pointed out how terrible Tampa Bay was that year and that Ovechkin, while not a mean person, embarrassed the Lightning, whose star players, including Martin St. Louis, echoed that sentiment after the game.
Even Ovechkin’s teammates knew he’d probably gone too far in a sport where not showing up the opposition is taken seriously. Nicklas Backstrom and former Capitals defenseman Mike Green skate toward Ovechkin, saw what he has in mind, and quickly got the hell out of there, which was hilarious. Later, goalie Jose Theodore told French-language publication Le Journal de Montreal that he encouraged Ovechkin to do something fun.
The resentment actually got to Ovechkin, who still celebrates big goals with the exuberance of a kid, but has never gone back to coordinated stunts. It was meant to be a fun way to enjoy 50. It angered a few too many in the hockey world. So he moved on.
But tonight at Capital One Arena, almost exactly 10 years after the hot stick incident, Ovechkin sits at 48 goals with a chance to get 50 when the Capitals host the Lightning (7:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network). If he does it will be the eighth time he’s reached that mark. Only Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy (nine times) have gotten there more.
“You get to 50 there’s not too many guys in history that can say they’ve done that,” said Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos, who played in the hot stick game. “When you’re that close you want it for sure. He’s going to get it. It’s a matter of when. But that’s the magic number.”
Stamkos would know. He’s topped 50 twice – and in one of those years, 2011-12, reached 60. He and Backstrom are the only players left who played that night, a 5-2 Washington win.
Stamkos was a rookie phenom on a team that finished last in the Southeast Division with 66 points. He scored a goal himself to tie the game 1-1 in the first period. Tampa Bay assistant coach Jeff Halpern, a long-time Capitals player and a Maryland native, was actually on the other side playing with the Lightning late in his career.
Ovechkin getting 50 tonight would be ironic. It would also help in a big game against the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Tampa Bay has already clinched that, the Atlantic Division and home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The two teams bashed each other all over the ice in an emotional, feisty game at Amalie Arena on Saturday, the first time they have met since last year’s epic Eastern Conference Final won by the Capitals in seven games. The Lightning won that game 6-3, but two empty-net goals made the final score look worse than it was. They play again tonight and on March 30 in Tampa. But who knows if another playoff matchup is possible? That would again be in the Eastern Conference Final and no one is looking that far ahead.
“He’s been a superstar in the this league for a long time, a future Hall of Famer,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “For us, it’s a rival and we’ll try to stop him. He’s going to hit 50 again, obviously. That’s pretty impressive at the age of 33. But not tonight. Not tonight or [March 30].”
Here are the other six times Ovechkin has hit the 50-goal mark besides the hot stick celebration against Tampa Bay:
April 13, 2006 – at Atlanta Thrashers
Rest in peace, Thrashers. The old Southeast Division rival moved to Winnipeg earlier this decade. Ovechkin used to torment Atlanta. In a 5-3 loss during his rookie year he scored No. 50 and became the first rookie since 1993 to score 50 goals and record 100 points.
March 3, 2008 – vs. Boston Bruins
What a ridiculous early date to hit 50. The calendar had just flipped to March. This was the first Capitals team with Ovechkin that rolled for a whole regular season. They crushed the Bruins 10-2 and Ovechkin had a hat trick for goals 50, 51 and 52. He finished with 65.
April 9, 2010 – vs. Atlanta Thrashers
Ovechkin got the Thrashers again. See if you can guess the other team he’s reached 50 against twice later in this list. This game was a 5-2 win in a year Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy, but lost in a first-round shocker to the Montreal Canadiens. Ovechkin broke a 2-2 tie with a wrist shot at 9:49 of the third period. Incidentally – that was also Nicklas Backstrom’s 100thpoint. Nice symmetry.
April 8, 2014 – at St. Louis Blues
Remember, Ovechkin went through a dry spell for a few years. He dropped to 32 goals in 2010-11 and 38 in 2011-12. People started to freak out. Now, for most hockey players that’s a great season. Ovechkin just set the bar at an absurd level. The next year in 2012-13 it was a 48-game schedule because of a lockout, but Ovechkin flashed signs he was getting back to a historic level with 32 goals in just 48 games. In 2014 he got back to 50 during a 4-1 win at St. Louis. His one-timer from his office in the left faceoff circle came on a power play in the first period.
March 31, 2015 – vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Back to 50 before April. Washington won this game 4-2. The crowd chanted “M-V-P!” over and over and gave Ovechkin a standing ovation after his first-period goal put the Capitals ahead 2-0. The shot? From just inside the left circle. The pass? From Evgeny Kuznetsov.
April 9, 2016 – at St. Louis Blues
What does Ovechkin have against the Blues? Twice he’s reached 50 at Enterprise Center. This time it was during a 5-1 win. It was also another hat trick. It was also the last game of the year. Ovechkin got goals 48, 49 and, finally, 50, which came in the third period on an assist from Backstrom.
Ovechkin dipped to 33 goals in 2016-17, which was a concern as he entered his 30s. But last season he rebounded and fell agonizingly short with 49 goals. He has nine games left to score twice and get there again. If he does, he will be one 50-goal season shy of Gretzky and Bossy.
Let Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper sum it up:
“What's amazing about it, too, is [Ovechkin] had a couple years in the 30s a few years ago and then has turned it up a notch and is back in that 50 realm again. But the one thing, some organizations are blessed that in an era, you get to witness the same player every night and marvel at what they do. I've been fortunate enough to be in the league six years now and I don't get to see him every night, but when I do, he's a fun guy to watch and the fans here are treated to every time the puck's on his stick, it has a chance to go in the net. Some guys in this league, and we've got a couple of them, that pull fans out of their seats and Ovi's one of them.”
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