ARLINGTON, Va. — Alex Ovechkin certainly has a lot of helpers.
The Russian star has climbed to second on the NHL career goals list with a supporting cast of teammates eager to help him rewrite the history books.
Only Wayne Gretzky with 894 has more goals than Ovechkin’s 810, of which only 40 have been unassisted. Setting up the greatest-goal scorer of this generation and perhaps one day hockey’s best is an art — one that has been crafted and perfected over Ovechkin’s 18-year career in North America by a growing list of Washington Capitals cohorts.
“He definitely wants pucks in certain areas of the ice,” said Tom Wilson, who has assisted on 39 regular-season goals by Ovechkin in nearly a decade together. “You understand kind of when he wants it, where he wants it. As you play more games, you go with the flow and you get accustomed to it and you build that chemistry and you kind of just feel it.”
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Getting a feel for Ovechkin depends drastically on the situation, according to seven players who have combined for 365 primary assists (and 698 overall) on his goals.
Finding Ovechkin in his familiar spot in the left faceoff circle on the power play or getting him the puck steamrolling up the ice or putting it on his stick blade in the offensive zone are some of his most common scoring scenarios. They require passes with different speeds and locations.
John Carlson, who took over for Mike Green (70 assists, 48 primary on Ovechkin goals from 2005-15) as the point man on Washington’s top power-play unit, has it down to almost a science at this stage. In the simplest terms, Carlson said: “Sometimes he beats the goalie. Sometimes you have to help him beat the goalie. Sometimes it’s a combination.”
What goes into that combination to set up Ovechkin for his trademark one-timer? More than meets the eye of opposing goaltenders and defenders.
“The hardest part about it is not making a 20-foot pass but trying to look off the other team, trying to set something else up because you look at him and then you’re looking where the puck’s coming from,” said Carlson, whose 92 primary assists and 142 total on Ovechkin goals trail only longtime center Nicklas Backstrom. “For him and how precise he is, maybe that does make a big difference. Maybe you stop the goalies 3 inches, 4 inches from getting over there. It’s clearly made a difference.”
Clearly, since Ovechkin has scored a league-record 294 power-play goals — many from the faceoff circle that has become his office much like the area behind the net was known as Gretzky’s.
That still leaves more than 500 goals at even strength, which is where Backstrom has shined since making his NHL debut in 2007 and moving to the familiar spot as Ovechkin’s center. They’ve now played more than 1,000 games together.
Backstrom’s favorite assist: When Ovechkin is entering the offensive zone with speed and he can give him a drop pass.
“I’m always looking for his back foot,” said Backstrom, who has assisted on 278 Ovechkin goals, including 136 primary. “I don’t look too much on his tape that much, to be honest. When he wants to one-time it, it’s usually on the back of his foot.”
Most players typically want the puck on the tape of their sticks, closer to the tip of the blade. Winger T.J. Oshie, who currently uses sticks featuring one of Ovechkin’s old blades and has assisted on 42 of his goals since being traded to Washington in 2015, said the curve is big enough to want the puck closer to the back.
“He kind of covers it and lets the blade almost slingshot it,” Carlson said. “His (curve) is definitely more pronounced because of how whippy his stick is. From that sense, even if you do pass it (to the front of his stick blade), if he’s in motion, by the time it’s released it’s somewhere back there anyway.”
Other teammates laugh off the notion of a perfect pass to Ovechkin. “Anything on the tape,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said with a chuckle. “I don’t know,” defenseman Dmitry Orlov (34 assists) said. “When he’s open, probably?”
They agreed the most important ingredient to feeding Ovechkin was just making sure the puck wasn’t bouncing or on edge by the time it got to him.
“As long as it’s flat and it’s on the tape so he doesn’t have to think about how to handle all that stuff and just can play right away,” said Kuznetsov, who has 66 primary and 105 total assists on Ovechkin goals. “As long as it’s flat and in his spot, he’ll be OK.”
Eventually it becomes instinctual the more players skate with Ovechkin, who they say doesn’t call for the puck very often because he doesn’t have to. Teammates know where he is on the ice, Wilson said, and that chemistry grows with time.
“It doesn’t hurt to play with him for a while and to kind of know what he does,” said Marcus Johansson, who has assisted on 58 Ovechkin goals during two separate stints with the Capitals. “If you can get it to him anywhere in the area where he can shoot it, it feels like it’s always a scoring chance. He does most of the work on those, so you just get the puck to him where he can shoot and you’ve kind of done your job.”
The rest of the job belongs to Ovechkin, whose shot will be studied by hockey historians for decades for how it has flummoxed opposing defenses and the 167 different goaltenders he has scored on. No one has put the puck on goal more times than Ovechkin, who recently broke Ray Bourque’s record that had stood since 2001, Entering Monday, Ovechkin has scored on 12.9% of 6,266 shots.
Knowing the odds of Ovechkin getting the puck from his stick to the net is all the more reason for teammates to pass it to him and watch their assist totals soar while he chases Gretzky.
“It’s great we have a player who can score every shot and is always dangerous,” Orlov said. “He’s got the shot from the gods, and he’s using it."