WASHINGTON (AP) Alex Ovechkin is built like a linebacker with the motor of a steam engine and the mentality of a wrecking ball.
He can score like no other player of this generation and few in history and has the physicality to match. That was evident from his first NHL shift when he powered up ice and crushed Columbus defenseman Radoslav Suchy so hard it knocked out the stanchion between the panes of plexiglass.
Ovechkin at 32 is no longer the human bulldozer he once was, but his hard-hitting style never put a dent in his prime years as he became the fourth-fastest player to 600 goals . On Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals’ 2004 No. 1 pick will be the first player from that draft class to play 1,000 NHL regular-season games, a testament to his durability that is also difficult to duplicate in modern hockey.
“That he has reached 1,000 games this quickly is an amazing accomplishment with the way he plays,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. “These are big men, and the league has gotten faster but it’s also gotten much more fit, and that Alex has been able to span those generations and continue to play and be incredibly productive is really a historic feat.”
In 13 seasons, Ovechkin has missed more than four games only once and never missed more than 10. Take out the eight games for suspensions and the Russian winger has only sat out for injury 21 times out of a possible 1,028.
“I heard a couple years ago that he said he’s the Russian Machine,” longtime teammate Nicklas Backstrom said. “That probably has something to do with it.”
Ovechkin brushed off an injury in his second season with the now-famous line, “Russian machine never breaks.” Ovechkin has played through knee and back pain and finished one playoff series on a fractured foot, illustrating his pain tolerance while also avoiding the kinds of serious injuries that derail other players’ careers.
Goaltender Braden Holtby pointed out that it helps Ovechkin to not kill penalties and risk injuries in those situations while also marveling at how the Moscow native is built. His 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame gives him the tools to punish opponents with his body as much as his shot.
“When you’re big guy like Ovi, you’re not gonna be afraid to hit no one,” Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “And when people gonna hit you, they’re gonna feel it, for sure.”
When Barry Trotz coached in Nashville, he remembered players seeing Ovechkin down the hallway cutting his stick and whispering about how big he was. Ovechkin had that intimidating presence to him.
“Trust me, we had a lot of nervous defensemen,” Trotz said. “We had a couple of nervous cats.”
Watching Ovechkin’s sometimes reckless play could have at one point made the Capitals nervous, too, because of how valuable he is and how important it is he stay healthy. In recent years, he has toned it down with age and as hockey has gotten faster with lower priorities on hitting.
“As soon as you get a little older, you realize when you have to get a hit and when you have to take a hit,” Ovechkin said. “You can see right now in the playoffs it’s different hockey. Of course, every shift you try to do something out there, but in the regular year you don’t have to run around and hit everybody because if a game is 5-2 or 4-1 you don’t have to do it. Obviously you have to play smarter and try to do different things.”
Evolving his game as a scorer and a power forward has helped Ovechkin get to this point where he’s on the verge of leading the league in goals for the seventh time and reach 50 for the eighth time.
If Ovechkin, who still has Stanley Cup aspirations and three years left on his contract, maintains this level of durability and wants to keep playing in North America toward age 40, reaching 1,500 games isn’t out of the question.
“There are a lot of players that have played 1,000 games but not as many players have scored 600 goals,” Leonsis said. “If he takes cares of himself – which he has been, he looks great – he can play a lot of years in the league.”