- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2015

The celebration was unremarkable, not at all like the goal that sparked it.

Alex Ovechkin dropped to his left knee, pumped his fist and shot back up to his feet, skating into the embrace of two of his Washington Capitals teammates. Seconds earlier, Ovechkin had beaten Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward far side with a one-timer from the left circle, sending him looping through the slot and springing the crowd to its feet.

It was the 50th goal of the year for Ovechkin, making him, in March, only the sixth player to reach that mark in at least six seasons. Coincidentally, it also pulled him even with Peter Bondra for the franchise record, giving him 472 goals during his career.

As Ovechkin enters his 11th season with the Capitals, gone are the days of questioning how long the 30-year-old left wing can keep up his torrid pace. Instead, as scoring remains remarkably stable around the NHL, it’s curious why Ovechkin’s output has been rarely matched in recent seasons.

“He doesn’t have a time where he’s not matched up against the best in the world, and he excels,” coach Barry Trotz said. “He does it with a physicality that’s unmatched for an elite goal scorer. I mean, it’s crazy.”

Ovechkin finished last season with 53 goals, scoring 25 of them on the power play. He had 10 more goals than Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, and collected the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for the fifth time in the last eight years.

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That power play is a large reason why Ovechkin has been so productive. Kept schematically intact last season by Trotz, that unit was the most lethal in the league, scoring on 25.3 percent of its chances.

The Capitals, coincidentally, scored 25.3 percent of their goals last season on the power play, putting them fourth in the league with such a proportion. Ovechkin has scored 176 times on the power play, accounting for 37.9 percent of the goals he’s scored in his career.

“I think it’s his shot,” said center Nicklas Backstrom, who has assisted on 173 of Ovechkin’s 475 career goals. “I mean, there’s no one in the league that shoots as good as he does. I think for the goalies, I’ve talked to goalies, and it’s so hard for them to read his shot, and, it’s quick, too, and he can shoot from all angles, too. … A lot of people can’t do it the way he can, so that’s why he knows how to put it in.”

After he scored 32 goals in 2010-11 and 38 goals in 2011-12 — a pair of down years, by his standards — Ovechkin scored 32 goals in 2012-13, a lockout-shortened season that had him on pace to reach 55. He had 51 goals in 2013-14, again finishing well ahead of his closest competition, Anaheim Ducks right wing Corey Perry, who scored 43.

“Me and a couple of the guys were talking about the other day — ‘I wonder if he knows where it’s going every time,’ and I think it was Backy who stepped up and was like, ‘Yeah, I think he does,’” said right wing T.J. Oshie. “I think he’s had a pretty good front-row seat to seeing where it goes. It’s impressive. It’s a weapon, and something that we’re all very fortunate to have.”

Scoring reached astronomical heights during the 1980s, with nearly 23 players a season scoring 40 or more goals. That number has plummeted, especially over the past decade; only one player has crossed the 50-goal mark in five of the last six full-length seasons. In addition to Ovechkin’s three times, Stamkos scored 60 goals in 2011-12, and Perry had 50 goals the season before.

Goaltending is a large reason for the decline over the past 30 years, with larger, more athletic goalies occupying the net. In recent seasons, parity among teams and keen preparation has helped keep scoring in check.

“I can remember when we didn’t pre-scout,” said Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who entered the league in that capacity with the Buffalo Sabres in 1991. “Somebody asked me the other day, ‘What’s different since you broke in?’ We didn’t pre-scout. We didn’t have video. We didn’t have all the things that we have. So, I think that’s some of it.”

Why Ovechkin has remained immune, though, seems harder to understand. At 6-foot-3 and 239 pounds, he has brute force behind his shot, but he’s been frequently matched by his opponents’ best defenders and now encounters goaltenders who save 90 percent of shots.

Last year, after he joined Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Marcel Dionne, Guy Lafleur and Mario Lemieux in exclusive company with his 50th goal, he acknowledged that reaching that mark is increasingly difficult, citing the quality of goaltending and opposing systems as being tough to beat.

Yet on Tuesday, he shrugged off questions about his scoring ability. As he did in March, he finds nothing remarkable about it.

“I just have to do my thing, you know?” Ovechkin said.

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