“It’s very emotional,” Ovechkin said. “My parents watched it from home. My wife is here, kids here, friends. Doing it with the home crowd, it’s special. They give me full support, and this is pretty big. It’s a historic moment. It’s nice to be in this category of players. It’s pretty cool.”
The only name above Ovechkin’s now is that of “The Great One” — Wayne Gretzky’s 894 goals, once believed to be unapproachable, are at the top of the mountain. And given that the 37-year-old Ovechkin’s scoring pace has barely slowed as he has aged, it’s likely a matter of when — not if — No. 8 passes the legendary No. 99.
“It is just crazy to see, and it is a huge number, and it is a great accomplishment for his game, for his person and for his family, too,” longtime Capitals teammate Dmitry Orlov said. “The way he is going now, for sure it is awesome, and you hope he is going to stay healthy — and another day, another milestone.”
Ovechkin’s no-look, empty-net goal came in a bit of a comedic fashion. After the Jets pulled their goaltender, David Rittich, with just under three minutes left in regulation, the home crowd chanted Ovechkin’s name. The crowd was willing Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette to put Ovechkin on the ice for an empty-netter attempt — and the chants only got louder as the clock ticked down.
Ovechkin got on the ice with 1:42 left in the game and had a long-shot attempt at an empty net that hit the post and clanked out. Moments later, with the Capitals in the offensive zone and the open net in front of him, Ovechkin passed it to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who quickly decided he didn’t want to shoot and instead gave it back to Ovechkin.
Laviolette said afterwards that he and Ovechkin had a conversation before the game and decided he would give Ovechkin normal minutes if any empty-net opportunity arose.
“It’s the kind of situation where if you have a chance to take it, you take it,” Ovechkin said. “I give it to Kuzy, and he’s like, ‘I don’t want to take it.’ But after that, it’s special.”
Kuznetsov said: “I’ll probably feel bad if I score over there and half of the world will probably be so mad at me. You know, I do have a lot of haters… the reputation, whatever.”
Howe died in 2016 at 88. Ovechkin met him at the 2009 All-Star Game in Montreal. A signed photo of Ovechkin and Howe together in the dressing room remains Ovechkin’s “top thing” in his collection, he said.
“Obviously, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky’s stick, Mario Lemieux’s stick — [the photo is] probably the top one,” he said.
On hand for Nos. 801 and 802 were Ovechkin’s wife, Nastya, and two sons, Sergei, 4, and Ilya, 2. All have been in attendance for Washington’s past three home games, when Ovechkin had his chances to catch Howe but couldn’t light the lamp.
On Friday, with all eyes on him, Ovechkin made sure he put on a show. Sergei and Ilya both went to the Capitals’ locker room after the game and posed for photos while they held up their father’s historic No. 801 and no. 802 pucks.
“You never thought it’s going to happen when you came into the league, you’re going to beat any Gordie Howe record or Wayne Gretzky record or any record,” Ovechkin said. “You felt like, okay, maybe you’re going to play in the NHL, you’re going to be good and you’re going to try to do your best — but the whole situation happening right now, it’s a miracle. You know, it’s pretty special.”
Ovechkin’s first goal Friday tied Howe’s record 18:22 into the first period to give Washington a 1-0 lead. His wrist shot from the circle got past Rittich, the 166th goaltender Ovechkin has scored on in his remarkable career.
Then the chase was on for a second.
“When you see what Alex does on a daily basis, I think anything is possible,” Laviolette said. “The way he plays. The way he scores. The way he shoots the puck. His love for the game. His passion and purpose for the game. Anything is possible.”
Ovechkin has nine goals in his past nine games. For the season, he has 22 goals in 36 games — a 50-goal pace. The Capitals struggled to start the year, but the captain has helped his injury-ravaged team stay afloat.
“He’s on pace again for another great year,” Laviolette said. “He’s in great shape. He’s obviously got tremendous ability and talent when it comes to doing what he does. He loves the game. He’s got a passion and a purpose when he takes the ice. I think all of those things combined and the fact that he’s been able to play in a lot of games, all of that adds up to having the ability to play consistently.”
Teammates have long praised Ovechkin’s abilities, but as he ticked off one legend after another during his march up the goals list, the appreciation reached a new level.
“Seven or eight years ago, no one even talked about it, even though he was clearly on the same trajectory he is now,” defenseman John Carlson said this month. “It went from ‘Maybe, kind of’ to ‘Holy crap, this is coming around pretty soon.’ … You get to play with a guy for 13 years that has beaten these guys in the history books, and it’s pretty cool stuff.”
With no. 802 behind him, Ovechkin can take a moment to breathe. But the expectations don’t end at No. 2.
“Everyone is waiting for the Gretzky record, and it is not going to be easy,” Orlov said. “Everyone knows it, and he does, too. It’s a lot of work and sometimes luck, too. There is a long way to go.”
Added forward Anthony Mantha: “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.”