Most NHL players begin to experience a significant statistical regression at 36 years old — and that's assuming they even last that long in the league. The vicious abuse they'd endured in their earlier playing days eventually catches up to them, and it ultimately has a major impact on their ability to continue generating points on a consistent basis.
However, some players are capable of not only continuing to produce as grizzled veterans, but even exceling.
Alex Ovechkin, without a doubt, is one of those players.
The longtime face of the Washington Capitals hasn't just been performing well in his 17th season as an NHLer. In fact, he could be playing the best hockey of his entire career.
Ovechkin, who turned 36 in September, has already netted 20 goals just 28 games into the season. Even more impressively, he sits just one point behind Edmonton Oilers superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for the league lead in points (45).
The Great Eight is remarkably on pace to log 58 goals and a whopping 128 points this season, which would shatter his previous career high of 112 points from the 2007-08 season. Just four other forwards in the NHL currently earn more ice time per game than Ovechkin, and only one player in the league (Mark Stone of the Vegas Golden Knights) averages more points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play (minimum 200 minutes of total TOI) than Ovi's 3.98.
There's obviously a reason why Ovechkin is so commonly referred to as the Russian Machine.
"He becomes more and more motivated and gets hungrier and hungrier," Capitals forward Tom Wilson told The Athletic. "He’s one of the (most) competitive guys I’ve ever met. He wants to win, he wants to score goals and he wants to be the greatest of all time."
Ovechkin's statistical outburst comes at a pretty good time. In February, the 11-time NHL All-Star is expected to travel nearly 7,000 miles around the globe to represent the Russian Olympic Committee at the 2022 Winter Olympics. And after three failed attempts at winning Olympic gold in 2006, 2010 and 2014, Ovechkin is likely as hungry as ever to earn his first title at the Games.
Russian athletes won the men's hockey title at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang — then competing under the name Olympic Athletes of Russia. However, NHL players, including Ovechkin, were prohibited from participating in those Games due to the worry of potential injuries.
For 2022, though, the NHL has opted to let its players compete at the Games, and this may be Ovechkin's best shot at winning an Olympic gold medal yet.
Ovechkin's capabilities are more than well-documented at this point. He's arguably the greatest goal scorer in the history of hockey, and he's sure to have his fair share of scoring opportunities at the Olympics. But he'll also be joined by two of hockey's best players at their respective positions — Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov.
Vasilevskiy is widely considered the best goaltender in the world. At 27 years old, he has already won a Vezina Trophy, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a pair of Stanley Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning while also appearing in three NHL All-Star Games. He owns an astounding 204-87-22 record in 323 NHL appearances, and he hasn't slowed down one bit to start the 2021-22 season, posting a 2.17 goals against average and .927 save percentage through 21 games.
Kucherov, meanwhile, is still recovering from surgery for a lower-body injury suffered in October. But when he's healthy, he's one of the very best hockey players on the planet. After missing all of the 2020-21 regular season due to a hip injury, he returned in time for the playoffs and led the star-studded Lightning in assists (24) and points (32) en route to a second consecutive Stanley Cup title. Kucherov holds the NHL record for most points scored in a single season by a Russian-born player (128), though Ovechkin could come close to surpassing that milestone if he continues to score at his current rate.
The three-headed monster of Ovechkin, Kucherov and Vasilevskiy alone is enough to make the ROC one of the most dangerous teams competing in February's Olympics, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Also expected to compete at the Games are Artemi Panarin, one of the NHL's top wingers, Kirill Kaprizov, an electrifying young star who scored the gold medal-winning goal for the Russians in PyeongChang, and some guy named Evgeni Malkin — a former Hart Memorial Trophy winner and seven-time NHL All-Star who's helped guide the Pittsburgh Penguins to three Stanley Cups.
The Russians boast one of the scariest groups of forwards going into the Olympics, and even though they appear to lack defensive depth, the presence of Vasilevskiy, paired with their high-powered offense led by Ovechkin, could be enough to offset any potential struggles that emerge in the defensive zone once the Games begin in February.
This could possibly be Ovechkin's last rodeo at the Olympics, and after finally achieving his main goal of winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, the only key item remaining on his to-do list (aside from surpassing Wayne Gretzky's all-time goals record, of course) is winning a gold medal for his home country.
If Ovechkin's start to the 2021-22 season serves as any indicator, he's more than ready to check that task off his list as well.
Statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.