The Caps’ captain passed Howe with a minute to go by shooting; somewhat reluctantly, into an empty net to give Washington’s fourth straight win and ninth in the last 10 games.
“You never thought it’s going to happen when you came into the league, you’re going to beat any Gordie Howe record or Wayne Gretzky record or any record,” Ovechkin said. “You felt like, OK, maybe you’re going to play in the NHL, you’re going to be good and you’re going to try to do your best. But the whole situation happening right now, it’s a miracle.”
Ovechkin needs 92 more goals to catch The Great Gretzky and 93 to pass and have a record most never thought would be challenged much less broken.
“When you see what Alex does on a daily basis, anything is possible,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “The way he plays, the way he scores, the way he shoots the puck, his love for the game. It’s going to take a lot but they picked the right guy to try and knock it down.”
Ovechkin, who has 22 goals on the season, could catch Gretzky during 2024-25.
After Ovechkin scored 802, Mark Howe, one of Gordie’s sons, was shown on the video screen above center ice at Capital One Arena. His prerecorded message was one of congratulations for what No. 8 has achieved so far and encouragement for what is ahead.
“On behalf of the Howe family, we want to say congratulations and a job well done and now it’s time to set new goals for No. 99,” said Howe, a Hockey Hall of Famer himself.
But first things first, Ovechkin cracked in a jubilant home dressing room, where his teammates serenaded him with chants of “Ovi! Ovi! Ovi!”
“Step by step, guys,” he said with a smile. “Still a long way. Right now, it’s time to spend time with the family and just enjoy this moment.”
Indeed, the pressure had been mounting on the 37-year-old, who scored goals No. 798, 799 and 800 in Chicago on Dec. 13. Over the next four games, he was held without a goal, despite his best efforts.
He fired wrist shots.
He uncorked slap shots.
He went to the net in search of rebounds.
But nothing would drop.
Then, with 1:38 remaining in the first period, he caught Howe, opening the scoring with a shot that he did not appear to get all of his strength behind. Racing into the Jets’ zone, he received a drop pass from linemate Dylan Strome and unleashed a wrist shot that eluded Rittich between the pads.
“After the hat trick to get 800, it took a little while to get 801 and 802,” Strome said. “To see that puck go in was just relief.”
“It’s history,” Strome continued. “Everyone in here talks about it. We understand the history of the game, and it’s impressive. It’s fun to watch, fun to be a part of. It’s a dream come true, to be honest.”
Rittich, who became the 166th goaltender Ovechkin has beaten, bowed his head in disappointment. As Rittich came to terms with being on the side of history no goalie ever wants to find himself, a wild celebration commenced.
Ovechkin’s goal song — “Shake, Rattle & Roll” by Big Joe Turner — blared over the speakers, the Caps’ captain was swarmed by his teammates in the corner and a capacity crowd enthusiastically chanted, “Ovi!”
The “Ovi!” chant broke out several more times throughout the night.
It was at its loudest after Winnipeg coach Rick Bowness pulled Rittich for the extra attacker with 2:53 left to play and the Caps leading 3-1.
Ovechkin did not immediately go out. He stepped onto the ice with 1:42 left to play.
“Alex and I talked about that and we decided we were just going to roll the bench the way it was,” Laviolette said. “I didn’t have him out there for the whole four minutes. I had it down to three lines. He was part of that rotation and it ended up being him, as it has been so many times.”
Ovechkin’s first attempt directed at the empty net came from 164 feet away. The puck went through Neal Pionk’s skates and just skittered wide of the vacated net, grazing the post.
Forty-two seconds later, Ovechkin’s latest milestone moment arrived. He did not appear to want to score into an empty net and dished the puck to Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov, though, didn’t want to score, either, so he passed the puck back to Ovechkin, who flung a no-look shot from the boards into the yawning cage.
“It’s the kind of situation where if you have a chance to take it, you take it,” Ovechkin said. “I give it to Kuzy and he’s like, ‘I don’t want to take it.’”
Added Kuznetsov with a laugh: “I’ll feel probably bad if I score over there and half of the world probably will be so mad at me. I do have a lot of haters anyway, reputation, whatever. So I rather lose the puck over there and backcheck if he didn’t score. So I’m glad it happened in front of our fans.”
In a moment that was supposed to be all about him, Ovechkin sent best wishes to defenseman John Carlson, who was struck on the right side of the head/face by a Brenden Dillon slap shot early in the third period. Bleeding profusely on the ice, Carlson went to the dressing room, pressing a towel to the side of his face. The alternate captain was later taken to the hospital for precautionary reasons, per Laviolette.
“It sucks that Carly get hurt,” Ovechkin said. “The whole third period I think the boys were thinking about him and how he’s doing. I hope he’s all right. I don’t know what’s happening right now, but all our minds right now are with him.”
Ovechkin’s big moment also coincides with the Caps playing their best hockey in recent memory. And Friday’s performance, which came 24 hours after an overtime win over the Senators in Ottawa, was one of Washington’s most thorough of the season.
After Ovechkin’s icebreaker, Sonny Milano finished a pass from Conor Sheary for his second goal in two games at 12:46 of the second period to put the home team ahead 2-0. Ovechkin earned the secondary assist on the goal.
Early in the third period, Nic Dowd extended the Caps’ edge to 3-0. The goal was the fourth in five games for the fourth-line center.
Kevin Stenlund scored the only goal for the Jets, who were held in check by another solid performance by Charlie Lindgren, who made 25 stops. Over his last nine starts, the backup goalie is 8-1-0 with a 1.89 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. Lindgren’s eight wins are the most by any goalie this month.
Five months after signing with the Caps, Lindgren said he still can’t believe the front-row seat he’s had to history.
“It’s an incredible honor to be a part of this,” he said. “When I signed with Washington, getting the chance to play with Alex Ovechkin, I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. Never in a million years would I have thought I would’ve been a part of it. But to be here, see the kind of guy he is and the kind of hockey player he is, I just couldn’t be happier for him.”
Bowness, meantime, has now seen two unforgettable Ovechkin moments. The veteran coach was an assistant in Arizona when Ovechkin scored “The Goal” in 2006.
“You know he’s going to score goals,” Bowness said. “I was in Phoenix when he had that memorable goal when he fell down and took a backhand. The defenseman, Paul Mara, came back to the bench and I said, ‘Paul, you just played that one-on-one absolutely perfectly. You separated the man from the puck, you knocked him down and he still found a way to score.’ So give him credit. That stays with you. And that shows his perseverance and character, his work ethic. Good for him, really. Congratulations to him. He deserves that.”