WASHINGTON, D.C. – A few hours before his captain made history, head coach Barry Trotz ordered a covert operation inside the Washington Capitals’ dressing room. “Spread the word,” he told several veterans, adding that the mission must stay discreet. It began the previous night once the team flight landed at Dulles International Airport, when general manager Brian MacLellan called the NHL and requested special approval for a special occasion. In the event that Alex Ovechkin scored his 500th goal Sunday night at Verizon Center, MacLellan wondered, could the Capitals empty their bench in celebration without penalty? Permission was quickly granted. Word spread down the line–to coaches, teammates, even the officials. Soon, everyone except Ovechkin knew the plan.
“If it happens tonight,” Trotz said, “let’s get out there as fast as we can.”
And so it was, 16 minutes and 19 seconds into the middle period during a 7-1 pasting of the Ottawa Senators, as the Verizon Center roared and Ovechkin drank in the din, 14 red jerseys sprang from their seats and leapt over the boards. The milestone goal had been roofed past goaltender Andrew Hammond, a slingshot from Ovechkin’s usual office on the power play. In the crease, Justin Williams fished out the puck and dashed to join the mob. In the stands, wearing his red Capitals jacket, Ovechkin’s father pulled out his cell phone, tilted it sideways, and pressed record. Nearby, his mother wiped away tears. Hats flew over the glass. “O-vi, O-vi, O-vi,” came the chants.
“A history moment,” Ovechkin called it later, one he wished to share with all those around.
Ushered back onto the ice by his teammates for a curtain call, Ovechkin stood alone. He held his hands over his head and applauded. He removed his glove and blew two kisses, one for each parent. His mother waved back. When he returned to the bench, Ovechkin briefly sat down then thought better of it. He stood up, smiled, and raised his arms once more, orchestrating another deafening cheer.
“You’ve got to give the fans what they want,” center Nicklas Backstrom said, so Ovechkin did.
The path was paved so perfectly, leading him back into the building where so many of his jerseys dotted the crowd, right on time after four straight road games opened the calendar year during the best first half this franchise has ever enjoyed. Fifteen seconds before the first period ended Saturday afternoon in midtown Manhattan, Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi wheeled around the net and pushed the puck toward a teammate not far ahead. Except Girardi never noticed Ovechkin lurking to his right. In an instant, Ovechkin crashed the passing lane and gave Girardi front-row tickets for No. 498, an uncontested layup.
The 499th goal, however–the one that handed Washington its 4-3 win in overtime–the one that pushed its Metropolitan Division lead to a whopping 16 points; the one that stunned Madison Square Garden and gave Ovechkin the chance to reach the milestone at home–was a tour de force. A snatch-your-breath masterpiece, totally and authentically Alex Ovechkin. It began deep inside the Capitals’ end, after goaltender Braden Holtby and defenseman Nate Schmidt had together stymied Derek Stepan’s would-be winner on the doorstep of the crease. As Ovechkin scooped the puck onto his stick and bolted behind the net, Schmidt wheeled around and waited, like he wanted to watch for just a moment. By the time Schmidt headed up ice, Ovechkin was already gone.
He gathered speed, stomping through the neutral zone in that very Ovechkin manner, kicking up slush in his wake. He reached forward Rick Nash at the Rangers’ blue line and surged past, leaving Nash to flail his stick and watch the rest. He cut inside against defenseman Ryan McDonagh and fired across his body, using his fellow captain as a shield and flicking the puck between McDonagh’s legs into the short side. He slipped while celebrating, screamed while on sliding on his knees, and face-planted by the Capitals’ bench.
This seems to occur often with Ovechkin–the scoring part, of course, but also the falling down. It happened in New Jersey on Dec. 20, 2014, when he toe-dragged between two Devils and back-handed the puck into the top shelf while in mid-stumble. It happened at Madison Square Garden during the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs, in similar fashion, when he split Girardi and McDonough, lifted the puck over Hendrik Lundqvist’s far shoulder, and slammed backside-first into the glass. It happened at Phoenix on Jan. 16, 2006, for the 32nd goal of his career, perhaps his most famous one. As for how he managed to twist his body, angle his stick, and coax the puck into the net without looking, while skidding flat on his back? Who knows, but dropping onto his knees usually means everyone else is standing on their feet. “That was pretty nice,” explained the Coyotes’ head coach at the time, someone named Wayne Gretzky.
Other players have reached 500 faster, Gretzky included, but the list isn’t that long: The Great One needed 575 games. Mario Lemieux took 605. Mike Bossy and Brett Hull needed 647 and 693, respectively. All of them, however, played in eras where goals were more plentiful. The 30-year-old Ovechkin, on the other hand, leads the NHL in goals since 2001-02; he didn’t even enter the league until 2005-06.
“It’s special moment,” Ovechkin said, behind a podium in the interview room, wearing flip-flops with Capitals logos. “It’s nice to be in the category, the names. It’s very hard to score in this league right now, system-wise and how the goalie played. If you get to 30 goals or 35 goals, you’re lucky.”
At 803 games, Phil Esposito ranked next on the list, until the Capitals went on the power play and forward Jason Chimera saucered a pass from the goal line toward the left faceoff circle. All alone with time to gather himself, Ovechkin settled the bouncing puck on his stick. In the brief moment before he shot, a collective gasp came from the crowd. They had all come here hoping for history, hoping they wouldn't have to wait long. And now, as Trotz recalled one awestruck player telling him, “That’ll last forever.”
The memories would only stockpile from there. In the third period, Ovechkin would dangle around reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and beat Hammond into the top shelf, assuming the NHL’s goals lead with 26 in the process. Later, on the dry-erase board used to list players designated for meeting media, someone would just fill the whole thing with 8s. Once he got back from the curtain call as the first star, his teammates would offer a standing ovation inside the locker room. “We gave him a couple,” Backstrom said. “He deserves it.” Security guards would cheer as he walked toward the interview room. Senators head coach Dave Cameron would extend a hand in the hallway. “Ovi, congratulations,” he said.
In the early moments of the milestone, though, as the Capitals surprised Ovechkin by pouring off the bench, few words were spoken inside the scrum. Just hugs, slaps, and that gap-toothed grin from the greatest goal-scorer of his time.