WASHINGTON — Alex Ovechkin sat in his locker stall with his 2-year-old son Ilya sitting on his left knee, holding the puck from his 801st NHL goal, and 4-year-old son Sergei on his right knee, holding the puck from No. 802.
It was an emotional cap to an emotional night for Ovechkin, who scored two goals to tie and pass Gordie Howe for second in NHL history during the Washington Capitals’ 4-1 victory against the Winnipeg Jets at Capital One Arena on Friday.
“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. You know, it’s pretty special.”
Ovechkin tied Howe at 18:22 of the first period when he took a drop pass from Dylan Strome on the rush and let go a wrist shot from the top of the right face-off circle that beat goalie David Rittich between the pads to give Washington a 1-0 lead.
He then passed Mr. Hockey with an empty-net goal with 1:00 remaining in the third period.
“It’s a historic moment,” Ovechkin said. “Who knows who is going to score 800 goals next time? I hope someone and I’m lucky enough to be able to stay healthy and be able to score so many goals.
“I want to say, first of all, thanks to all my teammates who I play [with], coaches for the trust, for the opportunity too to be able to be out there in different situations. Without them, I would never reach those milestones and reach those numbers.”
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Ovechkin will next set his sights on Gretzky, the NHL all-time leader with 894 goals who retired following the 1998-99 season. In a video played on the screen at center ice after he scored his 802nd goal, Howe’s son, Mark, a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman, congratulated Ovechkin on behalf of the Howe family and encouraged him, “Now it’s time to set new goals for No. 99.”
No. 99, of course, was Gretzky’s number, but No. 8 wasn’t ready to start thinking about him Friday.
“Step by step, guys,” Ovechkin said, repeating a common refrain for him during his ascent up the NHL goal list. “Still a long way. Right now, it’s time to spend time with the family, just enjoy this moment.”
Ovechkin had gone four games without scoring since reaching 800 with a hat trick at the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 13. That set the stage for the 37-year-old left wing to surpass Howe in Washington’s final game before the three-day Christmas break with Ilya, Sergei and his wife, Nastya, in attendance cheering him on. His father, Mikhail, and mother, Tatyana, saw from afar in Moscow.
“My parents watched it from home,” Ovechkin said. “My wife is here, kids here, friends. Doing it with the home crowd, it’s special. They give me full support, and this is pretty big. It’s a historic moment. It’s nice to be in this category of players. It’s pretty cool.”
Howe was 52 when he scored his 801st goal in his 1,767th and final NHL regular-season game, for the Hartford Whalers against the Detroit Red Wings on April 6, 1980. Howe, who died at age 88 on June 10, 2016, played 26 NHL seasons — 25 with the Red Wings (1946-1971) and one with the Whalers (1979-80). He also played six seasons in the World Hockey Association (1973-1979).
Howe, who died in 2016 at the age of 88, held the NHL record until Gretzky scored his 802nd goal, for the Los Angeles Kings against the Vancouver Canucks on March 23, 1994.
Video: WPG@WSH: Mark Howe celebrates Ovechkin’s 802nd goal
Ovechkin hasn’t had many moments when he’s hesitated to score during his 18-season climb toward passing Howe, but that’s exactly what happened on his 802nd goal. Ovechkin had several chances to score the goal to pass Howe before that, including a breakaway in second period, but was denied by Rittich, who became the 166th goalie Ovechkin has scored against (only Jaromir Jagr (178) and Patrick Marleau have scored on more in NHL history).
But with the Capitals leading 3-1 and Rittich on the bench for an extra attacker, Ovechkin took two shots on the empty net. He appeared reluctant to shoot each time.
The first, taken from 162 feet away in the Capitals zone, went off the left post for an icing. Then, when Evgeny Kuznetsov fed Ovechkin for another try, he instead passed back to Kuznetsov in the middle of the ice.
With the crowd chanting “Ovi! Ovi!”, Kuznetsov had no interest in denying the fans what they wanted and passed the puck back to Ovechkin along the left-wing boards.
“I’ll feel probably bad if I score there, and half of the world probably will be so mad at me,” Kuznetsov said.
Video: WPG@WSH: Ovechkin talks passing Howe with 802nd goal
Ovechkin paused before turning back and shooting into the empty net from inside the Jets blue line.
“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.’ But after that, it’s special.”
The crowd erupted, and the Capitals jumped off their bench to mob Ovechkin.
“I don’t want to say once in a lifetime, but moments like that in hockey rarely come up, and you pause the game to honor somebody for such a special achievement,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “What he has been able to accomplish here in Washington is truly unbelievable.
“He got an opportunity on a night like tonight to just again pause the game and take a moment, and just honor that moment of what happened is pretty special.”
After the final horn sounded, the Jets players lined up to shake Ovechkin’s hand and congratulate him.
“When you see a guy put up numbers like that, just the magnitude, he passed Gordie Howe,” Winnipeg defenseman Josh Morrissey said. “Gordie Howe is a legend of the game. He’s almost on the, potentially, the ‘Mount Rushmore’ of hockey, and ‘Ovi’ just passed him.
” … It’s a moment that you’re not happy about, but at the same time you have to appreciate and show him the respect he deserves. It’s pretty remarkable what he’s done, to say the least. That’s a huge understatement. It was the right thing to do.”
Video: WPG@WSH: Jets shake Ovechkin’s hand after 802nd goal
When the Capitals locker room opened to the media after the game, the players could be heard in the back room chanting “Ovi! Ovi!”, as the fans had done earlier.
“It was special,” Strome said. “To see the puck go in was just relief, I’m sure, from everyone. He’s got 93 more now to break the record.
“He’s an unbelievable player, an unbelievable guy. I saw the puck go in, and it’s a great feeling.”