Ovechkin’s absence has little effect on the pursuit of Gretzky

Alex Ovechkin still holds that scoring record, just a little later.

Alex Ovechkin still holds that scoring record, just a little later.
Photography: AP

Alex Ovechkin has since transcended hockey he entered the league officially in 2005. He had to wait another year because of that pesky canceled season after being drafted the year before. He also missed three months due to another lockout in 2012. Not to mention the coronavirus pandemic that disrupted the 2020 season. Without those three outings of time spent off the ice instead of scoring, there might not be a goal rush right now. Wayne Gretzky might be No. 2 on the NHL’s all-time goalscoring list if Ovechkin had lost nearly two seasons of games in those three vacations.

As news spread about the Washington Capitals captain taking a leave of absence from the team to tend to the health of a family member, which hurt the team’s chances of holding on to the Eastern Conference’s last playoff spot at the start of the hockey season, the reaction was pretty classy. No one protested Ovie leaving his team or his pursuit of one of sports’ greatest records. Ovechkin will remain 82 goals shy of Gretzky for the foreseeable future, as Washington head coach Peter Laviolette said there is no timetable for the Big Eight’s return.

For Ovechkin, giving priority to family is nothing new. Last year, when Russia’s brutal, needless war broke out against Ukraine, he was tasked with holding the line to protect his family while not openly denying Vladimir Putin and denying the war. That fine line was a false place to become the highest-profile Russian athlete in America, and perhaps in any sport. More, it remained popular despite the fact that few outside Russia supported the invasion. He’ll turn 38 in September, and even with the news that he won’t be fitting in with the Capitals any time soon, there shouldn’t be any doubt that he’ll end up being the game’s best scorer.

‘When’, not ‘if’

Talk about if Gretzky’s record will be broken changed the tone of this season by the time it was about to be broken. Even if Ovechkin scores 30 goals in each of the next three seasons, he gets it. And that’s a modest overall goal for him, even if he’ll enter his fifth decade on Earth during the chase. In the 54 games he’s played this season, he’s already scored 32. Breaking 50 wasn’t out of the question before this break. A healthy Ovechkin still has one of the best shots in the game. How many goalkeepers have tried and failed to prevent it disposable just above the left faceoff circle?

Washington not having Ovechkin diminishes the team’s playoff chances, but it won’t eliminate them entirely. The Capitals have had multiple integral players hurt at once for much of this season. Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson have been sidelined for much of this season, TJ Oshie recently returned from injury reserve, and John Carlson is out indefinitely after taking a hit to the face. Ovechkin is by far the biggest loss in the group. His presence alone forms such a part of the opposing team’s game plan. Now, that’s a big concern that the rest of the league doesn’t have.

Wishing Ovechkin to be okay with any medical situation serious enough to put hockey behind him for a while is a given. How much he’s shown he loves the game and how much Washington fans adore him says everything you need to know about the gravity of this situation. And kudos to Ovechkin for not relying on others to solve everything that happens just because he is this the great, most important athlete. And whenever he returns, he knows he’ll be welcomed back into the Capitals organization just as he left, as the GOAT of the organization.

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