ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Multiple times over their years playing together with the Washington Capitals, Alex Ovechkin told Tom Wilson he’s never going to change how he trains.
“He’s stubborn,” Wilson recalled. “He’s Ovi through and through.”
Still, Wilson acknowledged, Ovechkin has adapted his training regimen and preparation as well as, if not better than, anyone in the NHL as he has climbed the NHL career goals list, where he is now second behind only Wayne Gretzky. Now 38, old and gray by hockey standards, Ovechkin has stayed on top of his game long enough to reach 822 goals, just 73 from passing Gretzky’s record that long seemed unapproachable.
“Everybody in the sports world is on a pretty incredible ride right now watching him take a run at this,” Wilson said. “You feel it. You want him to do it.”
Ovechkin has scored at least 40 goals in each of the last five 82-game seasons, a testament to his consistency and durability. He has no realistic milestones to reach this season, but just about everybody from his teammates and coaches to former opponents expect the Russian superstar to keep doing what he does: score goals in bunches.
“Every year, people wonder if this is the year that he’s not going to be able to score,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. “I just don’t doubt him anymore. I think he’s going to be great like he always is, and I think he’s going to lead us off like he usually does.”
Ovechkin is coming off a season in which he was hampered by injury and missed four games after the death of his father. He hopes the injury is behind him, like others around one of the oldest teams in the league, and is ready to get back to playing after his longest offseason in nearly a decade.
The first several weeks of the season will be a good indicator of how strong a chance Ovechkin has at catching Gretzky. History is on his side: Ovechkin has averaged 0.70 goals per game in October, more than any other month.
“You prepare yourself for a long year,” Ovechkin said this week. “First couple games is going to be hard because you don’t get that game rhythm and intensity in games in a long time. But you just have to fight it. You have to do your best to feel good.”
The Capitals are trying to do their best to contend after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and put Ovechkin in position to challenge Gretzky. They have a new coach in Spencer Carbery who wants to play with faster pace and create scoring chances, which sounds like just the recipe for Ovechkin piling up goals.
“We’ll work to figure out how to generate as many scoring chances (and) looks as possible for Alex Ovechkin,” Carbery said. “I expect (to) put him in spots to set him up for success offensively, and that’s what I imagine he’ll continue to do.”
That starts with playing Ovechkin alongside longtime running mate Nicklas Backstrom, perhaps in Washington’s season opener Friday against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s familiarity that Carbery hopes gives the Capitals some continuity out of the gate; Ovechkin and Backstrom have played together a lot over their 16 years together.
“We’ve been together for all his career and my career,” Ovechkin said. “I think the chemistry we have through all those years, it’s going to help us.”
Backstrom said at the start of training camp that Ovechkin looks great and expressed no doubt about another productive season.
“Ovi’s Ovi,” Backstrom said. “He’s always going to get it done. That’s the kind of player he is, and that’s who he is.”
Fellow Swede Henrik Lundqvist, the goaltender who’s given up the second-most goals to Ovechkin at 24, sure isn’t betting against Gretzky’s record getting broken. The former New York Rangers star, now a TNT analyst, is finally getting the chance to enjoy watching Ovechkin put the puck in the net.
“Even if we were not here talking about him maybe breaking the record, I would still want to see him score goals,” Lundqvist said. “Record or not, as a hockey fan, you want to see him score.”
His teammates naturally want that, even if for this season they’re free from the feeling of trying to feed him the puck for the next big goal. Ovechkin still has two years left on his contract beyond this one to try to pass Gretzky, and there’s no shortage of belief within the Capitals organization that he’ll get there.
“He believes in himself, he believes in this team and he’s hungry,” Wilson said. “He just keeps pushing.”
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