In the sports world vacuum, the COVID-19 pandemic has been damaging for many. It has cost athletes their careers, or at least the chance to exit on their terms, while also taking away countless opportunities to achieve goals or maximize earning potentials. While minuscule in the grand scheme of things as the world grapples with an uncertain future, the major disruption to the sports calendar has caused permanent damage in the very privileged, separated-from-reality world that professional sports provides. There are just some things the pandemic won't give back. Some more important than others.
When the NHL, in particular, began laying waste to portions of its schedule around this time last year, it wasn't long before the conversation shifted to who that may impact the most. Would veterans like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau see the other side of this thing? Have the Tampa Bay Lightning missed out on their best chance to win the Stanley Cup?
And, in time, what does this mean for Alexander Ovechkin's pursuit of Wayne Gretzky's goal-scoring record?
It turns out there was no reason to fret about the first two concerns. Marleau and Thornton are still chasing different ideas of on-ice glory this season, and should both have the chance to leave on their own terms, while the Lightning are reigning Stanley Cup champions after dominating the NHL's summer restart and bubble championship.
Unfortunately, it hasn't been so simple with Ovechkin.
The events of the last 12 months have objectively hindered Ovechkin's chances of exceeding Gretzky's record of 894 career goals and cementing his place as the greatest goal-scorer in history — at least quantifiably, to go along with the prevailing theory. The Washington Capitals captain is short 39 games — or nearly a half season — thanks to interrupted and abbreviated seasons suffered in succession, lost time which would be worth about 24 goals based on his career 0.61 goals per game output.
Losing any amount of runway is a considerable disadvantage when chasing a record most believed would never be threatened, but there are other issues that have run simultaneous with these lost games. From organization to organization, the Capitals don't have the cleanest record when dealing with the challenges that competing in a COVID-19 world has presented.
Several reports suggested that the Capitals did not take the bubble environment seriously, and a result were promptly bumped from the competition in the first round by the New York Islanders. While the bubble failure wouldn't impact Ovechkin's individual pursuits per se, COVID-19-related issues have plagued both himself and his teammates this season, also coming at a considerable cost.
With the season barely two weeks old, Ovechkin was forced to miss 10 days, and four games, after being placed on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list for congregating in a hotel room with three teammates, one of which tested positive for the virus that has upended our world.
That self-inflicted hiatus contributed to Ovechkin closing in on No. 99 by only eight goals over the course of 365 days dating back to least season's pause.
Not ideal for a 35-year-old with much work still to do.
However, in the last few weeks, where opportunities have been in abundance, Ovechkin is back to taking full advantage.
Ovechkin is the hottest goal scorer in the NHL with 10 goals in as many games over the last three weeks, and he's suddenly in the running for the Rocket Richard Trophy once again, sitting just five goals back of league leader Auston Matthews. Naturally, that's meant wonderful things for the Capitals, who have won nine of the 10 games played during their captain's scoring binge to take over top spot in the NHL's East Division.
Unfortunately, the Capitals have just 22 games remaining on the schedule before another five months between games for Ovechkin to chip away at Gretzky's mark. He'll be 36 years old by the time the 2021-22 season begins, with 16 years of mileage on the odometer (plus perhaps another lengthy postseason run), and likely in the neighbourhood of 160 goals shy of the record.
That means Ovechkin will need four more 40-goals seasons, or at least enough in the bank over that time period to cover the rest as a 40-year-old forward in a game dominated by 20-somethings.
It still seems entirely possible, mostly because Ovechkin wants it.
But like anything in life, the events of the last 12 months have sure made things more challenging.
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