ARLINGTON, Va. -- Braden Holtby is both a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie and an insightful thinker, equally sculpted from Roy and Rodin. He delved into sports psychology as a teenager, which inspired an exhaustive pregame routine of focus exercises and visualization techniques. He reads books on team flights, self-teaches guitar chords from an app, spends mornings filling out crossword puzzles at the rink. After practices he is often found lounging at his locker stall long after fellow Washington Capitals have left, ruminating about topics like Indie rock and intestinal blocks. Or, on this late-February afternoon, the deception of Alex Ovechkin’s shot.
“It’s so unique,” Holtby says. “I’ve always wondered why it’s so much different than anyone else’s. He’s strong, but he’s not the strongest guy in the league. There should be other guys who shoot like that. No one’s ever figured it out. It’s really interesting.”
From the yellow skate laces to his board-wobbling checks, few elements of Ovechkin’s game have ever been considered subtle. Then again, becoming the 20th player to hit 600 goals--and fourth fastest in NHL history behind some bums named Gretzky, Lemieux and Hull--is impossible on raw power alone, no matter how many goalies his howling one-timer has frozen from the left faceoff dot. The milestone was reached Monday in a rather un-Ovechkin fashion, chipping a loose puck over Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck from a tough angle near the crease. But No. 599 was more of a vintage blend, a sidewinding wrister that whizzed past defenseman Tyler Myers’s ankles and tumbled through Hellebuyck’s five-hole.
That is what Holtby means when he says, “It just moves like crazy. If you really slow his shot down, you can see it move that little bit, you can see it cutting back. You see it over and over and you wonder why there’s movement, why the puck comes off certain ways.”
Part of the answer is owed to equipment, for which Ovechkin possesses an expert craftsman’s feel. (If a new batch of sticks arrives with extra spray-on grip, for instance, he can immediately spot the difference in weight.) He famously uses a looping banana curve that his current CCM representative describes as “legal, but right, right at the end of legal.” Combined with a mid-kick shaft that flexes like Gumby--and seems to snap from excess force at least once per game--Ovechkin can generate unusual puck motion for someone listed at 6’3” and 235 pounds.
“It’s really whippy,” former Capitals goalie José Théodore says. “He’d put all his weight on his stick and you couldn’t read when the puck was actually leaving his stick, because it would bend so much like a slingshot. Sometimes he’d put more weight, so you were anticipating a shot, and he’d delay for half a second, which is enough for a goalie to screw with your timing. Or he’d pretend he’s taking a long time and shoot it quickly. He’d put his weight on a shot and you’d see his stick bend, bend, and all of a sudden--boom--he’d shoot it.”
At least once during his two seasons in Washington from ‘08-’10, Théodore would snag an Ovechkin stick from the rack and fuss around by himself, trying to learn what makes the master tick. Years later, he recalls drawing a conclusion: “It’s not that his wrister is so much harder than the other guys,” Théodore says. “It’s how he makes a wrister that would usually be a routine, easy save for a goalie hard by changing his angle, shooting it from his back leg. When he releases it, if he holds onto it an extra second, then he can hook it or push it.
“That’s how he scores so many goals that only Ovi can do.”
Like Théodore, curiosity occasionally overtakes Holtby. “I’ve fooled around, just shooting on my own to figure out why the release is that way,” he says. “I think it’s like a golf club grip, how you change your grip around to make it draw or fade or whatever. I think he uses more power of his thumb, instead of the power across your knuckle area. I think he’s rolling over, so his stick never comes back.” The goalie gestures across the locker room at defenseman John Carlson. “When I golf with John, his ball is really low, a low trajectory, and the loft on the club is the same way,” Holtby says. “He comes down lower on it and has that draw. It’s kind of like Ovi’s shot.”
Picture a hockey net, divided into quadrants. As Holtby explains, the modern NHL goalie is trained to read a shot’s release point by looking at the stick blade before reacting to the corresponding quadrant where it appears headed. But Ovechkin’s pucks often trick netminders into covering the wrong quadrant, leaving a parade of sagged shoulders and awestruck admirers in their wake. “He doesn’t always hit it clean, which makes it more challenging,” Capitals backup goalie Philipp Grubauer says. “It knuckles a little bit sometimes, but because he has the power behind it, the puck goes like a curveball.”
“It’s a knuckleball with speed,” former Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig says. “Ask any baseball catcher. You’re getting set for a one-timer that you can hopefully take off the shoulder an the chest, then all of a sudden you see this speedy knuckleball coming at you. It can make a goalie look foolish sometimes.”
“Like how you’d throw a frisbee and it slowly cuts back,” Holtby says. “That’s a good analogy. We’re throwing everything out there. What else we got, bowling?”
Golf...frisbee...baseball...bowling...how about this simple hockey truth: There has never been another shooter like Alexander Mikhaylovich Ovechkin. Since he stormed into the NHL in ‘05-06 and single-handedly reversed the fortunes of a moribund Capitals franchise, his 600 goals are 195 more than anyone else (Sidney Crosby) and his 225 power play tallies already rank 10th in history. Assuming his current 0.61-goal-per-game pace holds, he not only has a reasonable chance at eclipsing 50 goals this season for an eighth time but could conceivably sniff Gretzky’s all-time record (894) before turning 40. “I think he was on a mission to prove he’s still one of the top snipers in the league,” Théodore says, “and it’s paying off.”
Culminating with Monday’s two-goal performance against the Jets--and teenage prodigy Patrik Laine, his closest competitor for the league lead--Ovechkin has suitably slapped aside any critics that arose during a substandard ‘16-17. According to Holtby, the Capitals’ captain has notably improved at “getting lower on the puck” for greater accuracy, rather than brazenly clubbing shots high and wide. “I think he’s shooting more areas of the net,” Holtby says. “Sometimes he takes a bit off it just so he can hit his spot, not trying to just blow it through every time.”
Of course, a little extra muscle never hurts either ... at least for Ovechkin. “When he gets his weight behind the shot with that hook, you just hope you get a piece of it,” Kolzig says, “but not in the wrong part of your body.”