WASHINGTON – Alex Ovechkin barely looked at the empty net when he shot the puck into it and set off a wild celebration with his teammates and among Washington Capitals fans.
With a no-look empty-net goal, Ovechkin made more history and moved another step closer to breaking one of hockey's most hallowed records.
Ovechkin scored goals 801 and 802 Friday night to move into second place on the NHL career list. After beating Winnipeg Jets goaltender David Rittich in the first period to match Gordie Howe, Ovechkin almost reluctantly scored from just inside the blue line with a minute left to pass “Mr. Hockey."
Only Wayne Gretzky with 894 has scored more, and Ovechkin is now 93 goals from breaking a record that has long seemed unapproachable.
“Step by step, guys," Ovechkin said after posing with sons Sergei and Ilya and the milestone pucks. “Still a long way.”
While it will take at least a couple more years to see if it's possible for Ovechkin to challenge Gretzky, moving past Howe warranted plenty of celebration. Fans chanted, “Ovi! Ovi! Ovi!” throughout Washington's 4-1 win, never louder than after he hit the empty net.
Teammates did the same in the locker room during a closed-door celebration, which followed Jets players lining up to shake Ovechkin's hand at center ice.
"I think it’s just to show respect, and it’s history for them as well," Ovechkin said. “The game is the game, but as soon as the whistle blows, it’s all about hockey. We respect each other.”
Ovechkin hit the post on his first shot at the empty net and passed up another attempt by giving the puck to countryman Evgeny Kuznetsov — and getting it back. Even if he didn't want to make history this way, Washington's longtime captain was going to do what it took to ice his team's fourth consecutive victory.
“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.”
Teammates leapt off the bench in celebration and the arena goal counter flipped to 802. A video tribute from Howe's son Mark followed.
“On behalf of Gordie Howe, the guy you just passed, and from (my) mother Colleen and the entire Howe family, we just want to congratulate on what a fantastic achievement,” Mark Howe said in representing his father, who died in 2016 at age 88. “You've been a pleasure to watch.”
Ovechkin made the hockey community watch him chase Howe for more than a week after recording a hat trick to become just the third player with 800 goals. He endured a four-game goal drought before breaking through Friday.
“After the hat trick to get 800, it took a little while to get 801 and 802,” said center Dylan Strome, who assisted on Ovechkin’s first goal of the game. “To see the puck go in was just relief, I’m sure, from everyone.”
Ovechkin after tying Howe did not look satisfied with stopping at 801. He got a breakaway early in the second period and was denied this time by Rittich — the 166th different goaltender he has scored on — and had a few other chances as the game progressed.
With the Capitals leading 3-1 late and Rittich pulled for an extra attacker, fans chanted for Ovechkin to get onto the ice. He and coach Peter Laviolette had discussed not forcing the situation, but when it was Ovechkin's turn, he didn't miss his opportunity.
“There is something good about what he does offensively when the goalie is out of the net, as well,” Laviolette said. "We didn’t change anything and it is a pretty special moment, pretty special night.”
It made it more special for Ovechkin to have wife Nastya and his sons in attendance. Minutes after 4-year-old Sergei and 2-year-old Ilya sat on his lap in the locker room, Ovechkin also beamed knowing his parents were watching from their home in Moscow.
“Very emotional,” Ovechkin said. "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.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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