Alex Ovechkin has one more hurdle to clear before he puts Wayne Gretzky squarely in his crosshairs.
A hat-trick performance against the Chicago Blackhawks last Tuesday brought the Washington Capitals ace to 800 career goals. He now needs one more tally to tie Gordie Howe for second on the NHL’s all-time scoring list with 801.
Washington hosts the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday at Capital One Arena in a high-profile game that will be televised nationally in Canada and on the NHL Network in the US (7 pm ET). The Capitals will also play at home on Monday, when the Detroit Red Wings come to town.
Ovechkin’s three-goal performance on Tuesday took him to 20 this season in 31 games, a pace of 52 goals in an 82-game schedule. He enters Saturday tied for sixth in goal scoring with Colorado Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen. Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid currently leads the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy with 27 goals.
Scoring has been on a steady rise in the NHL since the 2015-16 season. Over the past seven 1/3 seasons, he has jumped from an average of 2.71 goals per team per game to 3.16 so far this year, the highest rate since 1993-94.
Yet throughout his career, Ovechkin has been a remarkably consistent production model. Since he joined the NHL in 2005, he has won the Rocket Richard Award for league leading scorer nine times. He has had nine 50-goal seasons in his 17 years and produced an average of 0.61 goals per game in 1,306 games played.
And he doesn’t miss many games, even though he carries 238 pounds on his 6’3” frame and plays a physical game. The NHL began keeping track of hits the same year that Ovechkin entered the league. With 3,369 registered visits, he ranks fourth on their list.
Ovechkin turned 37 in September. But he’s still durable, and his scoring rate so far this season is actually a little better than his career average at 0.63 points per game.
Howe played in 1,767 NHL games over 26 years to reach the 801-goal mark, an average of 0.453 goals per game. He scored number 801 in his last NHL game on April 6, 1980, six days after his 52nd birthday. He also scored an additional 174 goals in 419 games in the World Hockey Association between 1973 and 1979.
Once Ovechkin passes Howe, only one name will remain above his.
Wayne Gretzky holds the all-time NHL record with 894 goals in 1,487 career games. He led the league in goals only five times in his 20-year NHL career, but had the two most productive individual seasons on record, with 92 goals in 1981-82 and 87 in 1983-84.
Ovechkin’s best year was 2007-08, with 65 goals, tying him for 23rd on the all-time single-season list.
Gretzky averaged 0.60 goals per game for his entire career, but his later years brought his average down. He retired at 38, at the end of the 1998-99 season, but the last time he scored more than 30 goals was five seasons earlier. In 1993-94 he won his tenth and final Art Ross Trophy with 130 points, 38 goals and 92 assists.
While Ovechkin is a pure scorer, Gretzky was really a playmaker at heart. And no matter how much the scoring rate rises in the modern NHL, Gretzky’s all-time records for assists (1,963) and points (2,857) will likely never be surpassed.
At 35, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins is the current record holder among active players in both categories. He has 915 assists and 1,449 points, just four ahead of Ovechkin, who has 1,445. After all these years, it looks like fans will have another compelling run to follow as the Sid-vs-Ovi rivalry nears the two-decade mark.
When Ovechkin signed a new five-year contract with a salary cap of $9.5 million per season on July 27, 2021, he sent out a Bat-Signal that he was going to try to go after Gretzky. At that time, he had 730 goals. To pass Gretzky’s 894, he would need to average 33 goals per year over the five years of the contract.
So far, he has 70 goals in 109 games since he signed that contract. He’s almost halfway there.
If he can keep up his current pace, he would break the record in just 148 more games. If he stays healthy, that would be 16 games in the 2024-25 season, less than two years from now and with more than a year left on his contract.
It’s an incredible pace and the hype is well justified. But while the manhunt for Ovi will get the Capitals more attention until the record is broken — and beyond, really, until the super sharpshooter hangs up his skates — he comes at a cost to the team.
Washington won its only Stanley Cup in franchise history five years ago, in 2018. But the organization’s need to provide Ovechkin with an environment in which he can keep scoring has prevented him from doing a proper rebuild as his core players they have aged. The Capitals haven’t won a playoff series in the four seasons since their championship and this season they risk missing the postseason for the first time since 2014.
They will enter Saturday’s game in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division with a record of 15-13-4, one point out of second place as a wild card in the Eastern Conference. As their season progresses, their playoff push will likely be another race to watch.