- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Peter Laviolette believes Alex Ovechkin can play into his 40s.

“A lot of it has to do with health as you get older, but right now, he’s still strong. I could see that happening,” the Capitals coach said in a radio interview earlier this season.

Well, from the way Ovechkin is performing in his age-36 season, playing into his 40s — a tall task for any hockey player — seems likely.

After a down 2020-21 campaign, Ovechkin is on pace to have one of his best seasons ever — and arguably his greatest — for a Capitals team that is 20-6-8 and near the top of the standings. Between chasing down records, scoring (and assisting) at an elite pace, leading the NHL in All-Star voting, having the No. 1 jersey in the league and being a midseason candidate for the Hart Trophy — Ovechkin looks to be in — again — the prime of his career.

“He’s the same-old, best-in-the-world type of player,” said teammate T.J. Oshie. “He’s just more consistent this year.”

Only 34 games into the season, it’s too early for Hart Trophy predictions. But so far, Ovechkin is on pace to be one of a handful of players, along with Edmonton stars Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, in contention for the league’s most valuable player award — which Ovechkin hasn’t won since 2012-13.

The three players represent the top three point scorers in the NHL. As of Thursday afternoon, McDavid and Draisaitl are tied for the lead with 53 points, while Ovechkin is in third with 50. Ovechkin, a three-time Hart Trophy winner, is second in goals with 24, behind Draisaitl’s 26, and is uncharacteristically in the top 10 in assists with 26. He’s also ranked in the top 10 in plus-minus at plus-19.

Early in the season, when Ovechkin and the Capitals were off to a hot start, many marveled at what the 36-year-old was doing. He looked younger. He was lighter on his skates. He was passing more and somehow still shooting just as often.

Now, almost halfway through the season, Ovechkin looks the same — despite spending more time on the ice than any winger in the entire league. At 22:08, Ovechkin is first among all wingers in ice time and behind only two forwards — McDavid and Draisaitl.

“It’s impressive,” said Draisaitl of Ovechkin. “He’s great for the game. He continues to get better and evolve his game. It’s cool to watch.”

He is currently on pace for 119 points, which would break his career-best mark of 112 from 2007-08, when he was 22. Ovechkin, who has led the NHL in goals in nine of his 16 seasons, is on pace for 57 goals, which would be the second-highest total of his career, behind only the 65 he posted in 2007-08.

The most surprising part of his season is his assist total, which puts him on pace for 62 — more than his career high of 59 in 2009-10 and far higher than the 37 helpers he totaled in the last previous seasons combined (113 games).

“Obviously, he’s the best goal scorer and he gets most of his glory from that. But he’s always been a good passer,” said teammate John Carlson.

On top of all the stats and on-ice production, Ovechkin, like reigning Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady — another graybeard playing at an elite level at an age when most athletes are retired — may be a bigger star than ever.

As of Monday, Ovechkin is leading the NHL in fan voting for the All-Star Game. He’s garnered 30% of the Metropolitan Division votes — ahead of Sidney Crosby’s 14% — to be the team’s captain. He’s also still a draw on the jersey rack, as his No. 8 uniform is the top-seller in the league, according to the NHL. It’s the first time since 2018 — the year the Capitals won the Stanley Cup — that Ovechkin had the league’s top-selling jersey.

But what’s gotten the most attention to the greatness of “The Great 8” has been his chase of multiple NHL records.

His most recent achievement was on New Year’s Eve against the Red Wings. Tied with Dave Andreychuk for the NHL lead in career power-play goals for two weeks, Ovechkin finally found the back of the net with the man advantage in the 3-1 win. 

“There are a lot of great players on that list, and it’s nice to be No. 1,” Ovechkin said.

But the power-play record isn’t the one everyone has their eyes on. That, of course, is Wayne Gretzky’s career goals record.

It’s likely to take a few more years, but Ovechkin is closing the gap. He started the season in sixth but has since passed Marcel Dionne and Brett Hull and is now at 754 goals — 12 behind Jaromir Jagr and 140 behind Gretzky.

It won’t be easy. But the way Ovechkin is playing this season is putting one of the most glamorous records in all of sports slowly but surely within the Great 8’s reach. 

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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