WASHINGTON, D.C. — One year and one day ago, when Alex Ovechkin struck the 500th goal of his Hall of Fame career, Verizon Center became sheathed in spectacle. The Capitals poured onto the ice in a bench-clearing celebration that required secret approval from NHL headquarters so referees wouldn't get mad and Ovechkin wouldn’t discover the plans. Cameras trained onto his family in the stands, where mother Tatyana wept with joy and father Mikhail recorded history on his cell phone. Hats flew over the glass. Instead of the usual locker room scrum, Ovechkin was summoned to conduct his postgame interview behind a podium (which he did wearing flip-flop sandals).
Wednesday night, when Alex Ovechkin reached 1,000 career points inside the same building, the resulting scene seemed somewhat subdued in comparison. Yes, there was Ovechkin—arms spread wide, smile even wider—after he had belted a puck past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury only 35 seconds into a 5–2 win against defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh. Yes, there were the two standing ovations Ovechkin then received from a sellout, primetime crowd, which serenaded him with chants of OVI! OVI! Yes, it all occurred with Ovechkin’s usual youthful flare—underneath his jersey, after all, he was dressed in knee-high neon Nike socks, and black leggings with AIR JORDAN and the Jumpman logo running down the side.
Yet as milestones continue to fall for this generation’s most dangerous offensive threat—and among the greatest era-adjusted goal-scorers ever—Ovechkin’s priorities are trained elsewhere. Of course he will ask for some personal memento to include in his sprawling basement collection, and he’ll eventually receive some gift from the Capitals during a pregame ceremony, like the golden stick he got for his 500th goal. But there’s a reason he’s begun speaking more about the mortality of his chosen profession: “Time move forward, and time move quick,” he said recently, via the Washington Post. “So you just have to enjoy every second, every moment.” There was a reason that, when addressing his teammates in the locker room later, draped in the boxing robe bestowed upon the team-awarded player of the game, among the first words out of his mouth were, “I couldn’t have done it alone.”
Those close to Ovechkin will swear that individual marks occupy increasingly less of his attention these days. He’s 31 years old now, averaging the least time on ice (18:21) of his career by more than one full minute, because coach Barry Trotz wants him fresh for when it matters. Against Pittsburgh, 30 saves from all-star Braden Holtby and four points from Nicklas Backstrom lifted the Washington sole possession of second in the Metro Division. There’s plenty to worry about in the District these days, but another playoff berth for the Capitals isn’t one of them. Thus, the luxury of looking ahead. "We spread the wealth a little bit,” Trotz said, “so his minutes maybe come down and it’s for the betterment of the team.”
Ovechkin understands. “It’s only one place,” he said last spring, a month before Washington bowed out in the second round against the Penguins. “It’s only first place in NHL. Nobody remembers who’s second place. Everyone remembers the winner.” Though to insinuate that any self-respecting hockey fan might forget Ovechkin is, obviously, nonsense. Among active players, only Jaromir Jagr (763 games) reached 1,000 points faster than him (880), and his 545 goals cut a larger share of the pie than anyone who reached the mark but Brett Hull (560). Monday night in Montreal, Ovechkin had tied Maurice “Rocket” Richard—namesake of the trophy he’s won six times—for 29th place on the career goals list with 544, inching to 999 points. “I think it’s only fitting that you get the 1,000th point here for our fans,” Trotz recalled telling Ovechkin. “He did it. Didn’t take much time.”
Not even one full shift, in fact. Last season, Ovechkin required five games to eclipse Sergei Federov for the all-time Russian goal-scoring record, a drought that began with him bashing 15 pucks on net at the Red Wings but none finding nylon. “I think he’s just calmer,” Trotz said. “I remember in Detroit when he had like 50 shots in one game trying to tie that one. That one I thought he was a bit nervous. I don't know if nervous was the right word, but he was a bit hyper for it. This one, he was all business today.”
Part of this concerned the magnitude of the game itself. Pittsburgh entered riding a five-game winning streak, while Washington had captured six straight. But watching Ovechkin tear down the right wing, slice inside, drag the puck out of reach of defenseman Kris Letang, and knife his shot past Fleury’s glove—or seeing Backstrom, who provided the primary assist, nudge Ovechkin to acknowledge the standing ovation—it was hard not to conclude that 1,000 points was merely another barrier easily knocked down, plenty more to come.
“He’s a unicorn,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said several months ago. “We talk about unicorns in Silicon Valley. We’re living with a mythical beast here in Alex Ovechkin, in that he’s so different and unique.” Says ex-Washington GM George McPhee: “How many guys could come into the league with that kind of fire, that ability to score, the physicality…he’s in that pantheon of the elite ones.”
Indeed, it’s only natural to marvel in these moments. (Or, alternatively, wonder why he and the Capitals haven’t together won a Stanley Cup yet.) At the one-timer that he later cranked past Fleury, his second goal of the game and 203rd lifetime on the power play, which lifted him past Steve Yzerman into 16th place (202) and left him one shy of tying Wayne Gretzky (204) for 15th. At the seven total games he’s missed over the past four-plus seasons, and the Gatorade bottle of Coca-Cola that he guzzles from on the bench. At an Alex Ovechkin who still embraces moments like these with unbridled joy—knee-high neon socks!—yet appears singularly locked onto what’s ahead. “We’re winning,” he said, “but I hope the best hockey is going to be a little bit later.”