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Ovechkin’s Climb To Howe Was A Party, And Now We Wait For The Next Celebration To Come

The hits keep coming, but it’s time for a little patience with one great hill left to climb.

Winnipeg Jets v Washington Capitals Photo by John McCreary/NHLI via Getty Images

It took seventeen and a half seasons for Alexander Ovechkin to reach his 800th career goal, but the wait to get to 801 and 802, spanning five games over ten days, felt like an eternity.

At last, on the final game before the holiday break, in front of a capacity crowd of 18,573 huddled inside the confines of Capital One Arena and the millions watching around the globe, the palpable anticipation of yet another set of milestones came to fruition in a 4-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night.

On the game’s first goal on a wrist shot from a weaving drop pass from Dylan Strome above the right circle, Ovechkin tied Gordie Howe’s career goal total for his 801st regular-season NHL tally. Ever the showman, Ovechkin, not content to remain tied with Howe, finished the job with a no-look empty net goal to salt away the victory in the game’s final moments, cementing himself all alone as the NHL’s second all-time leading scorer.

The tally, which came just two nights after Ovechkin was held goalless against the Detroit Red Wings, Gordie Howe’s hometeam of 25 years from 1946-1971, saw a release of pent-up emotions from the Capitals’ faithful. The game was stopped as all the assembled, including the visiting Jets, saluted the Great Eight and watched a pre-recorded message from Mark Howe offering his congratulations on behalf of his father and his entire family in recognition of the momentous occasion in the history of the sport.

Said Howe of Ovechkin, “I’ve had the opportunity to watch you play so many games as a scout and you’ve been a pleasure to watch. You’re one of very few people in this game to me that they bring a wow factor.”

“You embrace the fans. You’re everything that my mother and father would be very proud of and I know if they were here today, they would be at this hockey game. They’d be the first ones to congratulate you.”

While the anticipation of seeing Ovechkin’s goal total rise over the past few weeks has been tangible, it has also been the culmination of efforts years in the making. Ovi’s penchant for record-setting, particularly as he (seemingly) settles into the homestretch of his career has come at a dizzying pace. In fact, perhaps the one downside of Ovechkin’s milestone month is that given the rapid succession of his many accomplishments, it can become hard to take the time to appreciate each one individually.

Night in and night out, we’ve been treated to graphics packages of lists with those milestones, littered with names of the game’s all-time notables and greats: Richard, Dionne, Hull, Jagr, Selanne, Howe, and Gretzky.

In just the past three weeks alone he has passed Wayne Gretzky (402) for the most road goals in NHL history, played his 1,300th career game, passed Sergei Gonchar (1,301) for second on the all-time Russian games played list, passed Marcel Dionne and Bobby Hull (28) for the sixth-most hat tricks in NHL history, reached the 20-goal mark in each of his 18 NHL seasons (sixth-most in NHL history), surpassed Ray Bourque (6,209) for the most shots in NHL history, and of course scored his 800th NHL goal, before subsequently tying and surpassing Gordie Howe for second-most goals of all time.

While it’s been mostly a pleasure seeing one of our own elevated into the stratosphere in front of our own eyes, it’s clear that the weight of the moment has not been lost on his teammates. In an interview with the Washington Post’s Sam Pell, defenseman Dmitri Orlov said, “Everyone is waiting for the Gretzky record, and it is not going to be easy. Everyone knows it, and he does, too. It’s a lot of work and sometimes luck, too. There is a long way to go.”

Forward Anthony Mantha seconded this opinion, adding, “I think once he’s going to be number one, he can have a sense of relief. Until then, he’s on the hunt — and that’s what we love about him.”

For the viewers and fans, every Ovechkin shift has been appointment television. While it’s been a blast to see Ovi hunt down Howe’s mark, the very real risk of missing what could be a historic shift every time the Capitals captain has touched the ice since his hat trick 800th goal against the Blackhawks on the 13th has been a constant source of eager apprehension each game. Truly, it was Ovechkin’s gift to all of us to see him tie and reach Howe on the same night.

Perhaps lost in the excitement of the individual achievements of the Washington Capitals’ captain has been a nifty byproduct that the team, which has been marred by injuries and inconsistent play to begin the campaign, is very much starting to turn the corner. While the injury bug hasn’t fully passed them by – updates on T.J. Oshie and Martin Fehervary are still pending, as is the recent addition of John Carlson to the injury list just last night – there are signs of hope that there may be a reversion to normalcy in the season’s second half and home stretch. With the potential returns of Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson coming into view, there is cause for collective optimism at the Caps’ prospects in 2023. While the standings points matter just as much in September as they do in April, signs are trending in the right direction for these Caps looking to weather the storm and close out 2022 in spitting distance of playoff position.

While there are certainly more milestones to surmount for Ovechkin and more graphics package lists for Joe B and Locker to point to coming out of TV timeouts, for the most part now it’s time to wait and watch as the biggest hurdle of all looms in the middle distance.

As longtime teammate, Nicklas Backstrom wrote in a piece authored for NHL.com, “Alex hasn’t slowed down. He’s 37 years old, but nothing has changed. He’s a machine. It’s natural. His shot is not slowing down. He still plays physical.

“I think I said this three or four years ago: if there’s anyone who can beat Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record of 894 goals, it’s Alex. He’s on pace to score 50-something goals this season. He’s got the ability to score, and he still does it, so it’s impressive,” adding, “It would be amazing to watch. To be a part of it would be something incredible, so, hopefully, I am.”

In spite of the excitement, or foreboding, or anticipation, or whatever has been the default stress response from any of the millions watching Ovechkin approach these many wayposts, it can still be easy to take for granted how far he’s come and how much it has meant to the Capitals fanbase and the game of hockey as a whole. While it has routinely felt like yet another record falls each time Ovechkin takes the ice, it was notable and profound to see the collective response to this accomplishment, a recognition befitting its momentousness.

With just Wayne Gretzky and his 894 tallies ahead of him on the goal list, Ovechkin has some ground to cover before the once seemingly unthinkable come into view. While, of late, there has been a routine accustomedness to records falling at Alex Ovechkin’s hand, it’s back to waiting (if only just for a little while) for “The Great Eight” to pass “The Great One.”

The chase for Mr. Hockey’s mark has now come and gone, and with his family in the building and the hockey world watching alongside, Alex Ovechkin’s sensational career trundles along with no sign of slowing down any time soon.