MATHESON: A look at what makes The Great 8 so great

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As Alex Ovechkin inexorably moves toward becoming the greatest scorer in hockey history, he was asked what makes it different now that he is almost 40, not 20.

“More grey hair,” Ovechkin said Tuesday, his head in the game as he prepared for his team’s game on Wednesday against the Edmonton Oilers.

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The Washington Capitals captain has been grey for some time, so it’s not the worry of tracking down Wayne Gretzky’s 894 goals, with Ovechkin now 54 goals away, on a team without centre Nick Backstrom, who set up 279 of his 840 goals, but may never playing again because of a left hip that sadly won’t behave. Or, now that Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Caps’ second-best centre, has been traded to Carolina.

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Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan may have to sign or trade for an older centre this summer to help the Ovechkin pursuit of 99. Right now, Connor McDavid’s junior buddy Dylan Strome is the Caps’ top centre, with rookie Hendrix Lapierre, 22, currently Ovie’s linemate, and Connor McMichael, 23, learning on the job as regular pivots.

Lapierre told CBC reporter Patrick Henri on Tuesday that Ovechkin went over to the centre when the kid became his linemate and told him not to constantly be looking to pass to him, but, hey, the best-laid plans are hard to follow.

Whatever, there is an air of inevitability to Ovechkin getting to 895 goals, even if he’s 38 and he’s not as dynamic as he was because he skated miles and miles and he’s got a target on his back every night. Just as there was when Gretzky broke Gordie Howe’s all-time best 801 goals, with No. 802 on Kirk McLean, 30 years ago this month (March 23, 1994), off a Marty McSorley pass as Howe was in attendance in Vancouver. Gretzky was playing for the Los Angeles Kings.

“One day I was sitting with my dad and I said I was so nervous breaking Gordie Howe’s record,” recalled Gretzky, in a broadcast booth conversation with Caps’ TV play-by-play man Joe Beninati and analyst Craig Laughlin in January, 2023.

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“My dad, who is so smart, said: ‘Don’t worry about it. Gordie is proud of you. One day, you’ll feel the same way when that guy breaks your record,’ and here we are today,” said Gretzky. “I hope he does it. It’s good for the game.”

Gretzky’s breakdown in 1,487 games: 617 even-strength goals, 204 on power play, 73 shorthanded on 5,088 shots on goal. Ovechkin’s in 1,407 games: 528 ES, 307 PP, five shorties on 6,564 shots on net.

“It’s truly remarkable (Ovechkin’s shot). I mean, everybody knows where it’s coming from, right? It’s pretty obvious where he’s going to be and what’s he’s going to do. That’s what makes him so special,” said Gretzky, who gave the great stick collector Ovechkin one of his tools after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018.

As much as McDavid has loved the Sidney Crosby battles over the years because he played junior a few hours away from Pittsburgh in Erie, Pa. and was in the building to watch Crosby often, he has always gotten a charge out of being on the ice against Ovechkin, too.

“He’s certainly the greatest goal-scorer of our generation,” said the Oilers captain.

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Mutual admiration society on skill-sets.

“He’s (McDavid) from another planet,” said Ovechkin, who managed to wrangle a McDavid stick a few years ago for his collection and also watched as McDavid autographed a twig for Ovechkin’s boy at the 2022 NHL all-star game.

Ovechkin has played more than 1,400 games, but he also has missed time.

“There was half of 2012-2013 (lockout) and the season with COVID (ended March 12, 2020) and the short season the year after (56 games). He’s probably missed 100 games or so. He’d probably be really close to it right now,” said Strome.

T.J. Oshie, who has played nine seasons with Ovechkin, knows it’s inevitable.

“I’ve told people he’s going to do it. He’s just too good at scoring goals. You hope the body holds up,” said Oshie.

“When you’re around it all the time (scoring goals), you almost have to pull yourself away to realize how special a player he is, just how good he is at scoring goals,” said Oshie. “I mean when you’re here (on the ice), you’re saying: ‘Oh, Ovie scored two more tonight.’ But it’s hard to score goals in the National Hockey League.”

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“Everybody says he’s slowing down and he’s not going to make it, but he will.”

Even without Backstrom, his Jari Kurri to Gretzky as symbiotic relationships go.

“Yeah (Backstrom), he was good at finding me. He knows my game so well,” said Ovechkin.

Ovechkin has been good at racking up assists, too. Understatedly.

“He has underrated passing skills. I mean, he has close to 700 assists. You just don’t get that by shooting pucks for rebounds,” said Strome.

Chasing a points record is difficult. Trying to put pucks in the net. Harder.

Strome watched Ovechkin struggle to score early (14 games without a goal) but he has bounced back.

“It’s fun to watch, for sure. It (start) wasn’t as good as he wanted but he had the eight-in-eight stretch there,” said Strome. “When we’re on the power play, it’s almost like a 4-on-3 because they have a guy sticking to him all the time. But we’re trying to find ways to get him open for a shot.”

“I don’t think he’s getting the shots (PP) like he used to. Everybody’s penalty-kill in the league almost plays a diamond because every power play has switched to an Oviesque (one-timer). Every team’s penalty-kill is dictated off how he plays,” said Oshie. Like teams sticking defencemen on either side of the post when Gretzky was in his office behind the net, trying to make plays.

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Scoring goals is what Ovechkin lives for, but not just his own.

“The thing I notice is he’s just as excited when somebody else scores … it sends a good message to the team,” said Strome, who saw Ovechkin supremely happy when Caps’ first-round pick Ivan Miroshnichenko, 20, got his first goal recently against Pittsburgh. He has overcome Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“He’s more excited when other guys score. For a goal-scorer to do that … that shows his character. I mean anybody who has ever played with O has a story and they’ll mention it to their kids or grandkids. It’s no different for me,” said Oshie.

“My daughter is having a birthday in a couple of months and she wants an Ovie party because she’s turning eight,” said Oshie.

“For me it’s cool to be one of his good buddies, to play cards on the plane, swap stories, grab beers together,” he said.

And when he gets to 895 goals, it’ll be champagne.

Until then, his team’s get-into-the-playoff goals are more important.

“He really is very modest about his goal-scoring,” said Oshie.

True enough. How much Ovie quotes are in this story?

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