The Capitals’ season ended a month ago, but Alex Ovechkin has yet to take his break.
That will happen soon enough, but for now Washington’s captain is leading Russia at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Slovakia. After that, he gets his first real rest since the end of the 2016-17 season. He has played in 194 NHL games, including the postseason, in 18 months.
Ovechkin will turn 34 on Sept. 17 and the questions now start in earnest: How long can one of the world’s greatest goal scorers keep up his pace? Ovechkin recorded his eighth 50-goal season this past season. And while it ended in disappointment with a first-round loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ovechkin deserved little blame after adding four goals and five assists in the series.
“As a captain and as a leader, I thought he took another step this year from how he showed up to training camp to how he played all year long two-way hockey, commitment and when the games mattered the most,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said last month. “He scored big goals and showed fantastic playmaking ability. A physical force. I'm excited to see what he comes back with now after a little extended time away because he was tremendous this year.”
Washington won the Stanley Cup on June 7 in Las Vegas last year and after a hectic summer of celebrating and, eventually, training, players were back less than three months later for another grind of a season that ended after 89 more regular-season and playoff games. Ovechkin missed just one of them.
Next year could be another one filled with milestones for Ovechkin. He doesn’t even need 50 to reach them. With 42 goals he reaches 700 for his career. Only seven players have ever hit that mark.
Ovechkin passes Mario Lemieux (690) with 32 goals and moves into the top 10 all time. He has a reasonable chance to catch Brett Hull for second-most power-play goals (265) in NHL history. Ovechkin has 247 right now and has averaged 17 per year each of the past four seasons.
At some point, even for Ovechkin, scoring 50 goals will be too much. Only Johnny Bucyk (36) and Jaromir Jagr (34) have ever topped 50 goals at an older age. But if he could just do it one more time he would tie Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for most 50-goal seasons ever (nine). We’re at the point where nothing should surprise, but we’ve gone off the known map.
“That's the best I've seen him play in my three years here,” teammate Lars Eller said. “He just took some games over. It was impressive. He was our best player. Him and Nick, but especially O, he just took it to another level. Physicality-wise, he enforced his will out there and when he decides to do that, he's almost unstoppable. That was exciting to see."
Almost everything Ovechkin does now is unprecedented. In the past 20 NHL seasons dating to 1998-99, there have been 28 different 50-goal seasons as scoring has become harder thanks to better goalie play, equipment and more tactical defensive systems. And yet Ovechkin owns 29 percent of those 50-goal seasons. His 89 points (51 goals, 38 assists) were his most since 2009-10.
For now, Ovechkin will settle for another IIHF World Championship. He has helped Russia win gold at the event three times (2008, 2010 and 2014).
But Russia was 6-0 heading into the matchup with Sweden on Tuesday night and had outscored its opponents 29-3 in Group B despite just a goal and an assist from Ovechkin.
There can be wild fluctuations in the competition level during the group stage at Worlds. The Russians beat Italy 10-0 last week. And the United States, Canada and Finland are all formidable opponents in Group A.
Russia will likely play one of those teams in the quarterfinals on Thursday so nothing is guaranteed. The semifinals would be Saturday if they do win and then the gold-medal game - or the bronze-medal game - would be Sunday. Then, finally, Ovechkin can rest and get ready for his 15th NHL season with two years left on his contract with the Capitals.
“[Ovechkin] elevated his game in the first round. He's just got a hunger to him to contribute and to score goals,” teammate Brett Connolly said. “You could tell that he was committed and that he was going to give everything he had to win it again. He was great last year and arguably even better this year….This fan base is very lucky to watch what he does on a consistent basis. You're not going to see that ever again. So, enjoy it while it's here.”
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