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After 1,400 games and counting, Alex Ovechkin still doesn’t break

After 1,400 games and counting, Alex Ovechkin still doesn’t break

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

When Alex Ovechkin was a rookie, his teammates were concerned he might have a heart attack.

The Washington Capitals forward, who was 20 when he played his first NHL game in 2005, has always done things his own way. Back then, that meant a pregame routine of three Red Bulls. When the rest of his teammates were drinking Gatorade or water between periods, Ovechkin was downing soda.

“We all just sat there and said: ‘Okay, this isn’t sustainable. This kid’s going to have a heart attack or something,’ ” recalled Olaf Kolzig, the former Capitals star goalie who played with Ovechkin from 2005 to 2008. “I don’t think he’s on the same game routine as he was with the Red Bulls and the Cokes, but I don’t think he’s drinking the same amount of water as everybody else.”

Nineteen seasons later, the details of that routine have evolved, but what remains the same is Ovechkin’s commitment to his own unusual habits. And after he played in his 1,400th game Saturday against the Florida Panthers, becoming just the 41st player in NHL history to reach that milestone, he was probably the first one to do it while sipping from a bottle filled with Pepsi on the bench.

Since coming into the league in 2005, Ovechkin has played in all but 59 of Washington’s games, a whopping 96 percent. Only Patrick Marleau, Nicklas Lidstrom, Alex Delvecchio and Gordie Howe had played in a higher percentage of their teams’ games at the time of their 1,400th.

“He’s sort of an enigma,” Kolzig said. “He probably doesn’t have the healthiest diet in the world. He likes to have fun with the boys, so he’s not a guy that is constantly trying to find the magic elixir as far as nutrition or workouts. He’s kind of an old-school, throwback player. … He’s just one of those players that just keeps ticking.”

Ovechkin doesn’t always have much time for sentimentality, but Washington’s 38-year-old captain and talisman admitted that this milestone is meaningful for him.

“It’s obviously pretty big number, lots of games. Happy that I’ve played those games in only one organization,” Ovechkin said. “It’s good. … Thanks to my parents, give me good health. I was lucky enough to not have big injuries.”

‘Russian machine doesn’t break’

It didn’t take long for Bruce Boudreau, who became Washington’s coach midway through Ovechkin’s third season, to identify the traits that made his star player special.

“Once I saw him, it became real that I was coaching there,” Boudreau said. “He had that kind of impact on me. He was just all energy, all go. It really was ‘Russian machine doesn’t break’ at that time. His physique was phenomenal. He just did things out there that, I mean, there’s these certain people in the world where everything follows them, where they’re the star person.”

Of the 59 games Ovechkin has missed, only 35 have been because of injury — including three he missed this season. But that doesn’t mean Ovechkin, like all hockey players, hasn’t played through injuries.

One of Boudreau’s standout memories is from December 2007, when Ovechkin needed nearly two dozen stitches to close a cut on his thigh after a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, then went on to score four goals in Washington’s next game two nights later.

“He couldn’t put on any equipment or anything like this. I was just [thinking], ‘There’s no way he can play,’ ” Boudreau said. “But he said he’d play. … I just remember shaking my head at the end of the game. Here’s a guy that couldn’t even skate in the morning, and now he’s getting four goals and five points or something silly. I just said, ‘This guy’s incredible.’ ”

Boudreau has been back around the Capitals in recent weeks as he contributes to Monumental Sports Network’s broadcasts, giving him an up-close look at a rejuvenated Ovechkin.

It’s no secret that Ovechkin had a disappointing start to the year. But after returning from the break in early February, he scored seven goals in eight games and stretched his point streak that began before the break to 10 games — his longest since a 14-game point streak in 2018. He was held without a point Saturday, but came inches from scoring on one of his classic power-play one-timers and was later stopped on a chance to win the game in overtime.

“The last couple games I’ve watched him,” Boudreau said, “when he’s skating and he’s moving, he’s every bit of still Alex Ovechkin.”

Winger Tom Wilson has played 735 games in the NHL, all of them as Ovechkin’s teammate over the past 11 seasons. To put Ovechkin’s milestone in context, he had played nearly as many games as Wilson has now before Wilson came into the league — and has since played that many again.

“What a select few group of players that achieve that amount. It’s just incredible,” Wilson said. “And the way that he plays the game. You look at pretty much everyone above him, and they didn’t play the same way he did, running guys over and playing that power forward type of game. It’s just another thing that he does that wows people.”

Ovechkin has never shied away from the physical side of the game, even as he has grown older. It looked for long stretches of this season as though his age had finally caught up to him; no one can outrun Father Time forever, least of all someone whose workouts “aren’t probably the stuff of legend,” as Kolzig put it.

But at a crucial time for Washington’s fledgling playoff hopes, Ovechkin has turned in a vintage stretch of performances, dragging the Capitals with him as he has done for so many years and reaching a significant career milestone along the way.

“I think his hunger probably is his driving force,” Wilson said. “Every game that he plays, he’s hungry to score, he’s hungry to win, he’s hungry to be the greatest player there ever was. It’s one of those things where you just watch him day-to-day and sometimes you’ve got to pinch yourself. It’s pretty crazy the amount of games he’s played, what he’s done.

“He’s carried this team. [Playing] 96 percent [of the games], all these stats and things, you wouldn’t even believe if you told people. What he’s done, there’s really no words to describe that.”

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