- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2020

Very few people know what it takes to score at least 700 goals over the course of an NHL career. Actually, the number is just eight — now that we can count No. 8 himself, Alex Ovechkin.

The exclusive club welcomed its newest member Saturday when an Ovechkin slap shot found the net in the third period of the Washington Capitals’ game at the New Jersey Devils. His teammates mobbed him on the ice in congratulatory fashion, and the celebration will continue for a few more days as the Capitals have planned a pregame ceremony ahead of Tuesday’s home game against the Winnipeg Jets.

As Ovechkin continues to rise up the all-time goals list, passing a litany of Hall of Famers on his way to this latest round-number milestone, the conversation inevitably turns to his place in the history of the sport.

Fellow 700-goal club member Phil Esposito isn’t ready to call Ovechkin the best goal scorer in NHL history just yet — not until he breaks a certain record. Still, to Esposito, Ovechkin’s greatness is clear as day.

“Let me put it this way: I don’t give a (expletive) what era it would be, Alex Ovechkin would be still scoring goals,” Esposito said. “In any era, anywhere.”

Some of the most prolific goal scorers of all time believe in Ovechkin — they don’t guarantee he “will” top Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals, but enthusiastically say the Russian “can” do what was previously unimaginable. That includes Gretzky himself, who told NHL.com this year that records are made to be broken and Ovechkin “has a real legitimate chance” of doing so.

There’s reason to believe Ovechkin will keep up his pace. He became the second-fastest player to reach 700 goals and just the eighth ever to hit the mark, trailing only Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Brett Hull, Marcel Dionne, Esposito and Mike Gartner.

“That’s pretty good company, so I’m happy to be there,” Ovechkin said Saturday.

With the No. 700 milestone now in the bag and the lack of a Stanley Cup no longer a knock on his resume, the rest of Ovechkin’s career could become one long Gretzky watch.

‘Russian machine never breaks’

Gartner, who spent the first nine-plus years of his NHL career with the Capitals from 1979 to 1989, could be Ovechkin’s next victim before the regular season is over with his career total of 708 goals.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Gartner said he is excited and “very proud” that a second Capital is entering the 700 goals club.

“And maybe, possibly, an 800-goal scorer in that club too,” Gartner added.

Gartner lives in Toronto and thus doesn’t have an especially close relationship with Ovechkin, apart from crossing paths here and there over the years. From afar, Gartner has admired Ovechkin’s climb up the leaderboard, particularly how his shot has remained lethal as he’s reached his mid-30s.

“He has enough experience now that if he goes through any of those slow cycles or maybe slumps that you could call them, I’m sure he’s not too concerned about it,” Gartner said, “because he knows that if he stays healthy, if he continues to shoot the puck at the same volume that he’s been shooting the puck, his shot hasn’t decreased really at all. Those are going to be the things that will add up.”

Ovechkin is doing things 34-year-olds in the NHL just don’t do. The record for most goals in a player’s 34-year-old season is held, for the moment, by Frank Mahovlich with 43. Ovechkin is on pace for 56 goals this year, a testament to not only his shooting but also his toughness.

The man who once famously quipped “Russian machine never breaks” has missed just 16 games due to injury in his career, allowing him to sustain a scoring pace that other greats weren’t able to keep up for as long. According to Gartner, Ovechkin’s endurance is “not just impressive, it’s essential” to his success.

“He can’t score that many goals unless he’s durable,” Gartner said. “It’s not just that he’s in good shape — he’s durable, and those are different things … You can’t miss 15 or 20 games a year and rack up those kinds of numbers.”

“There’s two things as far as I’m concerned,” Esposito said on a recent conference call with reporters. “One is his constitution, and he’s a monster. He’s very strong. And secondly, he’s played with some pains. I’ll guarantee you that … He doesn’t complain about it. He’ll go out and he’ll play.”

Besides staying on the ice, is there a secret to scoring 700? Esposito pointed to something rather self-evident: shot quantity. Ovechkin already has taken the third-most shots on goal in NHL history.

“If you go back in history of all the guys that scored 700, they usually hit the net a lot,” Esposito said. “I think Alex is one of those guys, and he puts it on the net and puts the onus on the goaltender. That’s what I tried to do in my career.”

A shot at 895?

Early in his career, Ovechkin would say Gretzky’s record was unbreakable. Now he thinks he has a chance.

Appearing on a Canadian sports show during the preseason, when he was still 237 away from passing Gretzky, Ovechkin first said it was “too far” to think about breaking the record.

But soon, he did the math: “Four years, score 50 goals (each year) — why not?”

It took a while before Ovechkin came around to something his teammates, coaches and fans have believed possible for years.

Ovechkin’s former coach, Barry Trotz, already considers him the greatest goal scorer in history.

“If I was a betting man, I would bet on Ovi breaking that goal-scoring record,” the New York Islanders coach said this month. “In my mind, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to do it.”

Esposito won’t go that far, only because Gretzky still holds the record for now — 93 clear of second-place Gordie Howe, to boot. “If you didn’t beat the best, you’re not the best. Period,” Esposito said.

There’s one thing hockey minds seem to agree upon: Ovechkin would be great in any era he played.

Although some rule changes over the past 20 years were designed to increase scoring, Gartner and Esposito feel there are a few things actually working against Ovechkin in the current era of hockey.

“The guys back let’s say 40 years ago, they used to show up to training camp to get in shape. If they were playing today they wouldn’t show up to training camp, they would stay in condition,” Gartner said.

Both men also mentioned that goalies and defensemen today are better equipped, literally.

“It’s only harder (to score now) because everybody blocks shots because the equipment is so much better, the goaltending equipment is so much better, the forwards’ and defensemen’s equipment is so much better,” Esposito said. “There’s way more padding and protection. So in our day you didn’t block as many shots.”

So what has to go right for Ovechkin to catch The Great One?

Esposito’s first thought: Stay with the Capitals. That seems like a foregone conclusion, but Esposito meant it.

“You don’t do it alone in the NHL. You don’t,” he said. “You better have good teammates with you if you’re gonna be a good scorer.”

“He’s gonna have to have five or six really good years in order to catch Gretz,” Gartner said. “But if anybody can do it, he’s one of the few guys that I’ve seen come up over the last number of years that certainly has the possibility to do it.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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