Alex Ovechkin's charge up the NHL goals list had Phil Esposito thinking the Washington Capitals left wing might pass him for sixth before the end of last season.
"I knew he was going to pass me," said Esposito, who scored 717 goals in 1,282 games in 18 NHL seasons before retiring in 1981. "It was just a matter of time."
Then, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2019-20 regular season ended March 12 and the start of this season was delayed until Jan. 13. That extended Esposito's stay in sixth, but it's nearing an end with Ovechkin three goals behind heading into a home game against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, NBCSWA, MSG+, NHL.TV).
Ovechkin scored his 714th goal, and 363rd on the road to pass Steve Yzerman for second behind Wayne Gretzky (402), in a 3-1 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. At this point, Esposito would prefer the inevitable happen quickly.
"It's like when Wayne was going for my record (76 goals in 1970-71) and I was following him around," Esposito said. "When we got to Buffalo, I finally said to him, 'It's been three games. Will do you do it already so I can go home?'"
Gretzky obliged by scoring his record-breaking 77th goal, plus two more, for the Edmonton Oilers in a 6-3 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 24, 1982, on his way to finishing the season with 92. Esposito expects that, like Gretzky, Ovechkin won't slow down after passing him.
Ovechkin tied Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak for the NHL lead with 48 goals in 68 games last season and passed Luc Robitaille (668 goals), Teemu Selanne (684), Mario Lemieux (690), Steve Yzerman (692) and Mark Messier (694) to climb from 13th to eighth. After a slow start and missing four games while in NHL COVID-19 protocol Jan. 20-29, the 35-year-old has scored eight goals in 20 games this season.
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Ovechkin moved into seventh, ahead of Mike Gartner, by scoring No. 709 against the New York Rangers on Feb. 4. After Ovechkin passes Esposito, he'll set his sights on Marcel Dionne, who's fifth with 731.
He's also closing in on another milestone.
With 18 points this season, Ovechkin has 1,296 in 1,172 regular-season games in his 16 NHL seasons, leaving him four from becoming the 35th player to reach 1,300.
"It's amazing that he keeps doing it," Esposito said. "And he's going to keep on doing it because of that quick release. I love watching him score because he gets so damned excited about it. I just love it."
Esposito, a 1984 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee who played for the Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks and Rangers, is among those who believe Ovechkin has a chance to break Gretzky's NHL record of 894 goals. But having last season cut short and this one truncated to 56 games because of the pandemic hasn't helped Ovechkin's cause.
"Losing the games that he lost is going to be hurt his chances without a doubt," said Esposito, now an analyst on Tampa Bay Lightning radio broadcasts. "But I don't know. What Wayne did is phenomenal, but if anybody could (break the record), I think it could be him."
When Esposito retired 40 years ago, only Gordie Howe had scored more goals (801). But the 79-year-old is content with where he'll stand after Ovechkin joins Gretzky, Howe, Jaromir Jagr (766 goals), Brett Hull (741) and Dionne ahead of him.
San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau, who is second behind Ovechkin among active NHL players with 563 goals, is 41 and unlikely to catch Esposito. Sidney Crosby, a 33-year-old center for the Pittsburgh Penguins, is the next highest active player with 470.
"When I retired I was second and now I'll end up seventh, I guess," Esposito said. "Because I don't think anyone else is going to get up that high, and if they do, I won't be around to see it. I'll be gone by then."