Rob Rossi: Alex Ovechkin, Marc-Andre Fleury primed to challenge NHL’s biggest records
One is beloved. Another is loathed. Each has contributed mightily to the most enjoyable era of hockey Pittsburgh has known.
And in case you missed it, Marc-Andre Fleury and Alex Ovechkin both joined exclusive hockey clubs Monday night.
Fleury is now one of only 13 goalies to win 400 games in the NHL.
Ovechkin is now one of 20 players to score 600 goals in the NHL.
They were on opposite sides of the best rivalry of this NHL generation for so long that it is easy to forget how close Fleury and Ovechkin came to leading the Penguins out of the black hole that was the league’s season lost to lockout. The Penguins traded up to draft Fleury first overall in 2003. A year later, they finished with the worst record (but lost the NHL Draft lottery) in what was the Ovechkin Sweepstakes.
Sure, Evgeni Malkin is arguably the finest consolation prize any professional franchise has ever been fortunate enough to draft with a second pick.
It’s also true that had the Penguins won Ovechkin Sweepstakes, they would have been granted fewer balls in the Sidney Crosby Lottery they won coming out of the 2004-05 lockout.
If the choice is between Crosby and Malkin and Ovechkin, the choice is easy.
Still, it was pretty lucky of the Penguins — and for everybody in Pittsburgh — that the two greatest centers to enter the NHL since Eric Lindros both played with a goalie who had the goods to become one of hockey’s greatest winners.
Also, the fact that Crosby, Malkin and Fleury were together to go up against Ovechkin for most of his career should at least give his critics pause for reconsideration before knocking his never having won the Stanley Cup.
A lot of hockey players have won the Cup. How many can say they have made Wayne Gretzky sweat one of his NHL records?
Only Mario Lemieux has managed such magnificence.
Even in Super Mario Land, Ovechkin should be appreciated for frightening goalies like no scorer since Lemieux in his prime. If the suggestion is too much for you to swallow, perhaps the best course of action is to stock up on antacids.
Ovechkin is headed for a place even Lemieux didn’t reach: The 700 Club.
On track for a fourth 50-goal season in the last five campaigns, Ovechkin is a safe bet to eventually become only the NHL’s eighth 700 goal guy. He is a good bet to surpass Jaromir Jagr’s third-best 766 goals, and probably a decent bet to supplant the late Gordie Howe at No. 2.
Howe ended up with 801 goals. Only Gretzky’s 894 were more.
Truth is, despite an array of obstacles (goalies and coaches have never been better, enforcement of rules has rarely been worse), Ovechkin might have been The One to knock The Great One from the top spot if not for the “work” of NHL owners.
His rookie season should have been the one that wasn’t played in 2004-05. He ended up with 32 goals in 48 games after the lockout that eliminated the 2012 part of the 2012-13 season. After the next couple of seasons, Ovechkin will again likely be looking at losing games to owners’ greed.
What a waste that would be, because Ovechkin is a hockey treasure.
It isn’t entirely his fault that the Capitals’ best-built clubs ran into the three best Penguins squads captained by Crosby, who always could count on teammates as superior No. 2 (Malkin) and better big-game goalies (Fleury and Matt Murray) than did Ovechkin.
It isn’t true, either, that Ovechkin is a better player than Crosby or Malkin. However at the very worst, Ovechkin is one of a handful of humans who can do with seeming ease the one thing that turns most of us on to hockey: score goals.
He does it with unapologetic passion, too … still.
By the time of their respective 13th seasons, Gretzky and Lemieux at times appeared bored by beating goalies like rented mules. (Consider that your belated birthday gift, Mr. Mike Lange.) As he approached No. 600, Ovechkin reacted to most of his waning 500s-goals as though they were his first.
Planet Hockey is better with a grinning Ovi.
Planet Earth is best with a smiling Fleury, and Fleury has had a lot to smile about in his first season with Golden Knights. That his 400th victory came against the Flyers was fitting, almost as if the hockey gods were reminding the world that we’ll always connect Fleury with the Penguins.
Lost in the losing of his franchise-goalie spot with the Penguins is that Fleury has won 43 of 75 games in which he played dating to last regular season. He had won no fewer than 35 games in each of seven consecutive seasons before his final year with the Penguins.
A goalie can’t win 35 games if he isn’t regularly available to his club.
Being available to perform at a high level can be taken for granted. Remember what former Penguins general manager Ray Shero said about Fleury after his disappointing 2012 and 2013 postseasons.
“Fleury wins 35 games for us every year,” Shero said. “Am I supposed to throw those wins out? There aren’t any other goalies doing that.”
Since he joined the NHL, Fleury’s winning has been matched only by the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist. King Henrik is pretty good company for The Flower.
Playing pretty well the rest of his career probably won’t be enough for Fleury to best his idol, Martin Brodeur, as the No. 1 winner amongst goalies. Even six more seasons at 35 wins apiece would only pull Fleury within a binoculars-aided view of Brodeur’s ridiculous 691 victories.
That said, don’t bet against Fleury besting Patrick Roy’s 551 wins to claim the second spot as his own. In the shootout, he has found a format that rewards his unmatched one-on-one excellence. In the Golden Knights, he has found the rarest expansion franchise set up to contend from Day 1.
If the next Cup Final pits the Capitals and Golden Knights, bet on Fleury to again keep Ovechkin from the one goal he hasn’t scored.
You shouldn’t bet on that happening, though. In the playoffs, Crosby and Malkin will take care of one of the greatest goal scorers of any hockey generation.
How would they fare in a Cup Final against a goalie who is one of hockey’s virtuoso victors? We should all be so lucky to find out.
Rob Rossi is a contributing columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Real_RobRossi.