Ovechkin may not catch Gretzky, but does it really matter at this point?

Alex Ovechkin's consecutive hat tricks have increased his lead in the Rocket Richard race and furthered his case to be heralded as the greatest goal scorer of all-time, even if his final career total falls short of Wayne Gretzky's record 894 goals.
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Just so you know, Alex Ovechkin said earlier this week that he doesn’t think there’s any way he’ll catch Wayne Gretzky for the NHL’s all-time scoring lead. Then he went out and scored his second of back-to-back hat tricks, his seventh, eighth and ninth goals in his past five games.

Who knows? Perhaps Ovechkin will seriously challenge Gretzky’s mark of 894 goals. He probably won’t, but Gordie Howe’s ghost should be getting a little nervous right about now. But does it really matter at this point? With 28 goals in 31 games, Ovechkin is riding on the coattails of his Stanley Cup triumph. It looks as though the championship that he so badly needed on his resume has taken an enormous load off his mind and he’s playing relaxed and loose.

And it’s bringing out the best in him. It’s also establishing Ovechkin as perhaps the greatest goal scorer in the history of the game, whether he catches Gretzky or not.

The evidence is mounting here:

* Unless he suffers a long-term injury - which remarkably has never happened to him, not even once – or he goes seriously cold, Ovechkin will finish the season with 50-plus goals, becoming the third-oldest 50-goal scorer in NHL history after Johnny Bucyk and Jaromir Jagr.

* He may not catch Gretzky’s goal record, but he’s 37 power-play goals away from all-time leader Dave Andreychuk.

* Ovechkin is pulling away from the pack when it comes to the goal scoring lead this season. Should he lead the league in goals again in 2018-19, that would mark the eighth time he’s done that in his career, which would pass Bobby Hull for the most goal-scoring titles in NHL history.

* Speaking of Hulls, Ovechkin is now 107 away from passing Brett Hull for fourth on the NHL’s all-time list. Next up after that is Jagr at 766, which puts him 131 from that. With the way Ovechkin is playing, there’s every reason to believe he can at worst finish third all-time in goals.

* Did you know that Ovechkin currently has 32 empty-net goals? That’s the most of any player since Ovechkin came into the league in 2005-06 and puts him fourth all-time, one behind Mario Lemieux. He’s 24 behind Gretzky for the all-time lead, but he already has three of them this season, which ties him for the league lead. Why is that noteworthy? Because Ovechkin is showing that he belongs out on the ice in the moments that lead to empty-net goals.

* As dangerous as he has been on the power play this season, Ovechkin has 20 of his 28 goals at even strength. That’s 71.4 percent of his goals, the third-highest percentage of his career and his highest in eight years.

When you look at it realistically, Ovechkin probably isn’t going to catch Gretzky. The Great One had 735 goals by the time he was 31, which is two years younger than Ovechkin is now. That can be an eternity in hockey. You have to consider that he still requires six more seasons of at least 40 goals to catch Gretzky.

But then you look at Howe and you wonder. Ovechkin has been remarkably resilient when it comes to avoiding injury and he’s scoring at a much higher rate than Gretzky was at the same age. When Gretzky was 33, he had a 38-goal season, but then his scoring dropped off dramatically. In the last five years of his career, he scored only 91 goals and never had more than 25 in a single season. Howe, on the other hand, didn’t have as many goals as Ovechkin did until he was 41 years old. And he went to the World Hockey Association, where he scored 174 goals in six years.

So it all boils down to how long Ovechkin plays and, more importantly, how well he plays, for the rest of his career. He has two years left on his deal with the Capitals after this season. It won’t simply be a matter of Ovechkin staying healthy. It will be dependent on whether or not he can wring as much out of his 35-plus years as players such as Jagr and Howe did.

If he can do that, he might have a chance to become the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring king. But again, it doesn’t really matter whether he does that or not. Regardless of with what total he finishes, he’s already proved to the hockey world that he belongs with Gretzky and Howe when it comes to the game’s all-time great players at putting the puck in the back of the net.

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