Ovechkin approaches 500-goal milestone in historic fashion

Gone are the days in the NHL when high-scoring Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux lit up goaltenders at will.

Goals are down across the league over the past decade and even hockey's biggest stars struggle to score these days.

Except Alex Ovechkin.

The Washington Capitals left winger is three goals away from becoming the 43rd player in NHL history to reach 500 for his career and will likely be the fifth-fastest to hit that milestone. Gretzky, Lemieux and fellow Hall of Famers Mike Bossy and Brett Hull are the only ones to do it in fewer games.

Ovechkin will play his 800th game Saturday at the New York Rangers. As he approaches one of hockey's magic numbers, Ovechkin continues to show why he's among the game's best by scoring at a pace that no one else in this era can match.

"I thought I could score every night. I thought I was unstoppable," Hull said. "And I watch him in today's game, and it's scary to watch him do what he does. ... For him to do what he does in today's game is awesome."

What Ovechkin is doing is almost unheard of in today's game. His 497 goals are by far the most of any player since he entered the league in 2005. The second closest is 350 by Jarome Iginla, who just reached the 600-goal mark for his career last week at the age of 38.

Ovechkin is 30 — beyond what is usually a goal-scorer's prime — and he already has six 50-goal seasons, including 65 in 2007-08.

In the 1980s, seven or eight goals a game was the norm and Gretzky, Hull and Bossy were scoring 80-plus a season. Ovechkin was the only 50-goal scorer last year and is defying hockey's curve that has made elite goal-scorers almost extinct.

"He's been able to do it because he's probably the greatest goal-scorer of all time," former Capitals general manager George McPhee said. "He's an incredibly powerful man, and the way that puck comes off his stick — the power, the thrust behind it — is unlike anything most people have seen."

Ovechkin tires of talking about how he's done it.

"Just Google it: What's Alex Ovechkin's answer to this question?" the Russian said. "I just try to shoot the puck as much as I can because if you don't shoot, you can't score."

Only 717-goal-scorer Phil Esposito and Hull shot the puck as much as Ovechkin, who averages five a game. But it's not that simple: Ovechkin is the most effective shooter of this era because of his physical strength, skating ability and a release that can freeze goaltenders even when they know what's coming.

"The superstar in him is definitely there," said Adam Oates, who coached Ovechkin for two years and played alongside Hull during his Hall of Fame career. "Watching him for two years close up reminded me a lot of Hully in the sense that Brett could shoot a puck from anywhere at any time.

"A lot of guys just shoot it when it's in their wheelhouse. He can shoot it from anywhere."

Naturally, Ovechkin has his spots. When opponents figured out how to slow him down to 32 and 38 goals in back-to-back seasons, he and the Capitals adjusted.

On the power play, Oates told Ovechkin to stay in the faceoff circle to make the most of his patented one-timer.

At even strength, Oates moved Ovechkin to right wing, a change that once it took hold led to him winning his third Hart Trophy as NHL MVP in 2013. And even though new coach Barry Trotz moved Ovechkin back to his more comfortable left wing, two seasons on the right side helped reinvent him as a scorer.

"You see him get goals in front of the net five-on-five, you see him get backhand goals, you see him get tip goals," Oates said. "Playing a little bit of right side has helped that evolving five-on-five because I think it's made him a little bit more of a complete player."

Ovechkin said one of his improvements has been relying less on power-play goals, and only seven of his 21 this season have come on the power play. It helps that the Capitals are the league's most complete team and lead the NHL with 61 points, so Ovechkin doesn't have to put all the pressure on his shoulders.

A Stanley Cup has eluded Ovechkin, and that's what he's most focused on. But reaching the 500-goal plat is a testament to how important a generational player Ovechkin is.

"You can tell that Gretzky would score a lot of points now, you would know that Ovechkin would score a lot of goals in the '80s," former Capitals coach Glen Hanlon said. "No matter where he played, when he played, he'd be doing those things."