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NHL Stadium Series

Ovechkin sparked Capitals turnaround, forged bond with Washington

Forward enters Stadium Series chasing milestones, elusive Stanley Cup championship

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The stage is set for Alex Ovechkin, and what a grand one it will be.

The Washington Capitals forward will take the ice at historic Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for the 2018 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SNE, SNO, SNP, TVAS, NHL.TV) needing one goal for his ninth 40-goal season in the NHL and three to reach 600 for his NHL career.

Scoring his 40th goal under the spotlight of the first outdoor NHL game to be played at a U.S. service academy would make the night memorable. Scoring two after that to get to 600 would add to Ovechkin's legend.

 

[RELATED: Ovechkin can reach milestones with Capitals in Stadium Series | Complete NHL Stadium Series coverage]

 

That might seem like a lot to ask, but his teammates say they wouldn't put it past him. He already has three hat tricks this season and a Capitals-record 20.

"Being here a couple years now, there's nothing that would surprise me with how he gets it," forward T.J. Oshie said. "You just don't know with him. He seems to rise to the challenge, especially when some of these milestones are hanging around. So, I expect some good play out of him, as we always do, and maybe something spectacular."

Over his 13 NHL seasons, Ovechkin, 32, has often made the spectacular seem routine. 

He would be the sixth player in League history with at least nine 40-goal seasons, joining Wayne Gretzky (12), Marcel Dionne (10), Mario Lemieux (10), Mike Bossy (nine) and Mike Gartner (nine). He'd be the 20th player in NHL history to reach 600 goals and, according to Elias Sports Bureau, the fourth to do it in fewer than 1,000 games, joining Gretzky (718), Mario Lemieux (719) and Brett Hull (900). 

"I'm not at that age where I have to focus on my milestones," said Ovechkin, the Capitals captain, who has played 985 NHL games. "I just have to focus on my game. And if I play my game it'll come."

Video: WSH@CBJ: Ovechkin nets PPG in milestone game

Ovechkin reached one milestone Monday when he played in his 984th NHL game, against the Columbus Blue Jackets, to break Calle Johansson's Capitals record. If he doesn't miss any games, he'll become the first Capital to play in 1,000 on April 1 at the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

With three years left on his contract after this season, he said he'd like to play his entire NHL career with the Capitals. But what matters to him most is what he hasn't been able to do so far.

"We still haven't gotten what we want, the Stanley Cup," he said. "So, I hope one day we win it here."

If Ovechkin brought the Stanley Cup to Washington, it would be a huge achievement. The city hasn't celebrated a major professional sports championship since the Redskins won the Super Bowl at the end of the 1991 NFL season. 

But Johansson believes Ovechkin's legacy is already secure.

"He is Mr. Washington," Johansson said, "and he always will be."

***

Johansson, who played 15 seasons in Washington from 1988-89 to 2002-03 and was an assistant in 2012-13 and 2013-14, calls Ovechkin that for a number of reasons, beginning with the Capitals' streak of 397 consecutive sellouts at Capital One Arena.

Johansson remembers sellouts being far from a given when Washington played at the Capital Centre (later U.S. Airways Arena) in Landover, Maryland. Things started to change after the Capitals moved into Capital One Arena (originally MCI Center) in Washington during the 1997-98 season, when they made their lone appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.

But the Capitals were unable to sustain that success, and failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five of the next eight seasons. They finished 28th in what was then a 30-team NHL in 2003-04 with 59 points (23-46-3 with 10 ties), but their fortunes improved when they won the 2004 NHL Draft Lottery and selected Ovechkin with the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NHL Draft.

After missing the playoffs in Ovechkin's first two seasons (2005-06 and 2006-07), they have qualified every season since then but 2013-14. Their 79 points this season (36-21-7) have them in first place in the Metropolitan Division, one point ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers. 

According to the Capitals, ticket revenues have increased 167 percent since 2007-08, the first season they made the playoffs with Ovechkin. Their sellout streak dates to 2007-08.

"He's the face of the Capitals," said Langway, the Capitals captain from 1982-83 to 1992-93. "I still work with the team [as an alumni ambassador]. I get the old season ticket holders, which back when I played was only 8,000. Now, everyone wears red in Capital One Arena. That's because of Ovi and the players that he's played with and the owner, Ted Leonis." 

Johansson said having the arena in the city has built more of a connection between the current players and the fans than there was when the Capitals played in Landover. He doesn't see that same connection with Capitals legends such as Langway (5), Yvon Labre (7), Gartner (11) and Dale Hunter (32), whose numbers are retired, as Ovechkin's No. 8 will no doubt will be.

"Rod is remembered for a lot of reasons," Johansson said. "He's there every game in the stands. But a lot of the new [fans] they don't know about Dale that much. They see his jersey in the rafters, but the legacy is not there as much as Ovi's will be. Ovi's legacy will be way longer because the younger people in the fan base are going to carry on for a longer period of time because the building is downtown.

"Also, I think the Capitals are seen much more in the community than some of the older players were."

Ovechkin is among the most active Capitals in the community. In September, he held an event for the fourth straight season with local youth players from the American Special Hockey Association, a nationwide program for those with developmental disabilities.

Video: Ovechkin on making Washington, D.C. his home

Ovechkin has also sparked a jump in participation among youth players in the Washington area. According to USA Hockey, there were 8,975 registered players ages 18 and under in Washington (223), Maryland (4,767) and Virginia (3,985) in Ovechkin's rookie season of 2005-06.

That number rose to 12,980 by 2016-17, including 664 in Washington (an increase of 198 percent), 6,258 in Maryland (31 percent increase) and 6,058 in Virginia (52 percent increase). The Capitals call this "the Ovechkin factor." 

Without Ovechkin, there might not be a Stadium Series game in Annapolis on Saturday. It will be the second outdoor game the Capitals have hosted; the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic against the Chicago Blackhawks was held at Nationals Park in Washington. 

They also played in the 2011 Bridgestone Winter Classic against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

"He was the franchise player for this organization that they needed and turned D.C. hockey around," said Peter Bondra, a Capitals forward for 14 seasons (1990-91 to 2003-04). "If you come to the building and you don't know who Alex Ovechkin is, you just watch the game and after 10 minutes you're going to ask, 'Who is Alex Ovechkin?'"

***

Ovechkin said he hasn't thought much about his legacy in Washington. There will be time for that later.

"I'm going to think about it when I'm done playing, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to realize [what it means]," he said. "Right now, I'm still enjoying it. I'll realize it when I'm done how big I am in this organization."

Ovechkin already owns most of the Capitals' offensive records, including most goals (597), power-play goals (224), game-winning goals (100), overtime goals (22), hat tricks (20) and points (1,106). And he remains one of the League's elite goal-scorers.

Video: Ovechkin on approaching 600 goals with one team

He looked like his age might have been catching up with him when he dipped to 33 goals last season -- his lowest total in a full season since he had 32 in 2010-11. But he's rebounded to lead the NHL this season with 39 and is on pace to score 50 for the eighth time. 

Only Gretzky and Bossy have more 50-goal seasons with nine. No one else in NHL history has more than six.

Ovechkin would be the fifth player to score 50 or more goals in a season after his 32nd birthday (Sept. 17) and the first since Jaromir Jagr in 2005-06 (he turned 34 during that season), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Ovechkin would also be the oldest NHL goals leader (based on age on the final day of the season) since Phil Esposito did it with the Boston Bruins in 1974-75, scoring 61 at age 33.

"Right now, it's pretty much set in stone that he's probably the greatest Capital that's ever played," Gartner said. "Statistically he certainly is, but I'm sure he wants to and all the fans want that to be added to with a championship."

A championship remains the one item missing from Ovechkin's resume that he can't escape. If there's anyone who can empathize with him, it's Gartner. 

A 2001 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame who ranks seventh in NHL history with 708 goals, Gartner played 19 seasons in the NHL, including his first 10 in Washington, before retiring in 1998 without having won the Stanley Cup.

"I certainly understand it," Gartner said. "We don't ask anybody to feel sorry for us, and I'm sure Alex isn't feeling that. I can tell you right now how much he wants to win. Whatever anybody might say differently is just not the case. Alex wants to win a lot and he's going to do everything he can to make that happen."

If Ovechkin can't do it, that won't impact his standing as one the most prolific goal-scorers of any era or prevent him from being elected to the Hall of Fame the first year that he's eligible.  

Although Johansson said that not winning the Stanley Cup is what bothers him most, he maintains that Ovechkin's legacy as Mr. Washington is secure regardless.

"But it would be a totally different level if he won it," Johansson said. "Him and [forward Nicklas] Backstrom would be immortal in that town if they happen to win it this year or next year or whenever. Both of them would be remembered forever. They would probably get the key to the city."

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