- Alex Ovechkin and his teammates tried hard to get him a hat trick to reach the 50-goal mark for the eighth time in his career, but he came up just short. It wasn't from lack of trying.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the final fading moments of a meaningless final game, Alex Ovechkin was hunched over one knee near the New Jersey Devils net, chest heaving and utterly gassed. He had spent the past 110 consecutive seconds on the ice, a monstrous shift logged for a worthy cause. No NHL player besides Ovechkin has reached 50 goals since the ‘11-12 season, and damned if this generational human howitzer didn’t nearly complete a hat trick Saturday night to get there another time. “But whatever,” he would say later. “S--- happens.”
Oh, the Washington Capitals captain had chances. Bushels of them. A breakaway midway through the third period that misfired. A whiffed one-timer from the right faceoff circle, another pumped into goalie Cory Schneider’s chest, right after an echoing chant of, “WE WANT 50! WE WANT 50!” A tip-in chance sailed high with 46 seconds left. A rebound was whipped wide with 11. “We were all pretty sure he was definitely going to get it,” winger Devante Smith-Pelly says. “We were just waiting.”
Did anyone doubt Ovechkin would at least come close? Not long after Washington closed out a 5–3 win, goalie Braden Holtby was glancing over the box score, smiling and shaking his head at the sight of Ovechkin’s 18 shot attempts, 10 of which occurred in the the third period. The gaudy totals reminded Holtby of when Ovechkin was hunting the Russian-born goals record in Nov. 2015 and finished with an absurd 15 shots on goal against Detroit. Lately it feels like he has met new milestones every week; heck, the Capitals just honored Ovechkin for hitting 1,000 career games this Thursday, gifting a silver stick and an all-expenses-paid trip to watch FC Barcelona. None of that diminished the thrill of seeing him take aim at one more.
“I was praying that he would get 50, and everyone on the bench was, too,” coach Barry Trotz said. “But still, 49 goals, not that many guys in this league can do what he's done. He's been outstanding."
Ovechkin might yet lose the Hart Trophy race to colleagues like Los Angeles’s Anze Kopitar, or Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux, or New Jersey’s Taylor Hall, who rested along with several other teammates Saturday. But the numbers are nonetheless remarkable: His 49 goals, good enough for a seventh career Rocket Richard Trophy, account for 19.1% of the Capitals’ entire offensive output and should make him only the second player in the NHL expansion era to lead the league in scoring at age 32 or older (Phil Esposito). His 355 shots top the NHL. And his 32 even-strength tallies, including the first-period sizzler and second-period slapper that beat Schneider, mark a personal-best over the past seven full seasons—a loud rebuttal for anyone believing that he had rounded the corner into old age after a subpar '16-17.
“It’s pretty special,” Ovechkin said, setting up for a quick pivot. “But I'm pretty sure right now our goal not about the personal stats. Of course it's nice. Of course the end of the season you pay attention to that. Of course you don't want to lose it because you have a pretty good chance. I'm pretty sure right now for us it's most important thing is the playoffs. I think we're ready, and we can't wait to start.”
Indeed, that is where the Capitals' focus has been trained since clinching a third consecutive Metro Division title last weekend. The Blue Jackets loom in the first round now, followed by—gasp!—another potential meeting with two-time defending champion Pittsburgh. Every regular-season achievement pales to the ultimate prize that this group has yet accomplished.
But take a moment, before the Stanley Cup chase officially begins next week, to appreciate what transpired here in the District: At 32 years old, in the 82nd game of his 13th NHL season, there was the unbreakable Ovechkin, chugging through 6:04 of the final 8:10, chucking puck after puck fed by teammates who badly wanted to witness another brush with history. “We were all yelling on the bench, cheering,” Smith-Pelly says. “Sucks we couldn’t get it for him.
“We’ll call it 50. Round it up.”