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The goal that Alex Ovechkin labels his favorite: The one that he scored from his back against the Coyotes in Glendale during his rookie season

Craig Morgan Avatar
January 17, 2023

Alex Ovechkin has scored a lot of big goals. That will happen when you play 18 NHL seasons and put 882 pucks in the net between the regular season and the postseason. 

There was this ridiculous goal that he scored against the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 20, 2014.

There was the OT winner that he scored on May 1, 2018 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That goal eventually helped the Capitals eliminate the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, shed the label of a team that could not escape the second round of the playoffs, and ignite a run to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup. 

There have been electrifying individual efforts, 294 power-play goals — many of them scored from Ovi’s Office at the top of the left faceoff circle — and 72 playoff goals; most of them important ones, given the time of year in which they occurred. 

Still, as Ovechkin arrives in Arizona for his first game at Mullett Arena against the Coyotes on Thursday, there is one goal that stands out above the rest. It’s a goal that he scored in Glendale during his rookie season of 2005-06… from his back.

It may seem strange to call the sixth goal in a 6-1 victory Ovechkin’s greatest goal of all-time. The Capitals were on their way to the fourth-worst record in the NHL standings and the Coyotes were not a playoff team. The goal was largely meaningless.

But this is no Arizona-biased opinion. This was Ovechkin’s choice as his favorite goal when The Athletic’s Tarik El-Bashir asked him to name his 10 favorite goals

As Ovechkin continues his assault on Wayne Gretzky’s all-time regular-season goal scoring record of 894 — Ovechkin has 810 — I caught up with eight people who were there to witness history on Jan. 16, 2006. Coyotes goalie Brian Boucher, Coyotes captain Shane Doan, Coyotes defenseman Paul Mara, Coyotes TV analyst Darren Pang, Coyotes forward Mike Johnson, Capitals captain Jeff Halpern, Coyotes assistant coach Rick Bowness and Coyotes head coach Wayne Gretzky all offered their thoughts, as did Ovechkin with the help of El-Bashir, an old colleague of mine, who supplied a couple of Ovechkin quotes.

Let’s take a trip back in time when the arena was known simply as Glendale Arena. A time when Steve Ellman owned the Coyotes. A time when Nicklas Bäckström had yet to don a Caps jersey and supply Ovechkin with the first of his many primary assists. A time when Ovechkin was battling unfair stereotypes in the shadow of Sidney Crosby. 

The Ovechkin hype

The Capitals did not finish with the NHL’s worst record in 2003-04. They finished third worst, but they leapfrogged the Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks to select Ovechkin first overall at the 2004 NHL Draft at RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

Pittsburgh chose forward Evgeni Malkin at No. 2, Chicago chose defenseman Cam Barker at No. 3, Carolina chose forward Andrew Ladd at No. 4, and at No. 5, the Coyotes stunned analysts by taking little-known forward Blake Wheeler.

About three months later, the NHL initiated a lockout in an attempt to implement a salary cap. The NHL Players Association opposed that idea, countering with a revenue sharing proposal. With both sides holding firm, the NHL canceled the entire season on Feb. 16, 2005.

That meant that everybody had to wait more than a year to see Ovechkin and the rest of the 2004 NHL Draft class — unless they attended international events such as the 2004 and 2005 editions of the IIHF World Junior Championship or the same editions of the IIHF World Championship where Ovechkin totaled 18 goals and 28 points in 26 games.

Paul Mara: “The media coverage for the draft was good, but compared to 18 years later with social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all that stuff, it was nothing. When you look at the fanfare around Connor Bedard being the number one pick going into the draft this season, it’s so much more prevalent with the media the way it is now than it was back then. 

“We watched video clips and you knew he was big and strong, but nobody had a real sense of him back then — a guy playing halfway around the world in a league that was never on TV here.”

Darren Pang: “The 2005 World Junior Championship was in North Dakota during the lockout, and I went there and worked a couple of games for ESPN, including the semifinal and the final. That was the year that Canada had everybody. Patrice Bergeron got sent down. Jeff Carter and Sidney Crosby were there; Ryan Getzlaf. 

“Canada won the gold medal, but in the semifinals, Ovi ran over the Americans (he had two goals and an assist in a 7-2 win) and I was at ice level. It was his physicality that I kind of noticed more than his puck handling skills or shot or anything else. That and I’m pretty sure he taunted the Americans a couple of times as he went by their bench and kind of had his sweater held out. The Canadians really went at him hard in the final after that.”

Wayne Gretzky: “What a bull. He didn’t look like a junior player out there because he was so strong.”

Shane Doan: “I played against him at the [2005] World Championship and that line (Ovechkin played alternately with Evegeni Malkin, Maxim Afinogenov and Pavel Datsyk) was unbelievable back when he was 19 years old. I didn’t know that he was this generational talent then, but you knew you knew he was good. 

“To be honest, in the beginning, you probably thought that he relied too much on his own individual ability to score. It was crazy because he was so dynamic and so good, but that usually runs out in the NHL. I think the most impressive part of him now is how much his game has evolved.”

Mike Johnson: “We probably knew more about Sidney Crosby when he arrived but we knew that this guy was supposed to be as good as Sidney Crosby. We knew he and Sidney Crosby were gonna be pretty good, but we had no idea either one of them would be as great as they were right away.

“I remember thinking, ‘Well, the best rookies get 50 points so they might be really good and get 75, but they’re not gonna score 50 goals or get 100 points. There’s just no way.’ Nobody was doing that before the lockout. This was the dead-puck era. I think the top guys were getting 90 points so I remember thinking, ‘They’ll be good, but they won’t be that good.’ And then they came into the league and I was wrong. Everybody was wrong.”

Jeff Halpern: “When he showed up his rookie year he was almost out of a cartoon book. He had Daisy Dukes jean shorts and a tight T-shirt. He’s a thick guy so he was just busting out of his clothes. He looked like the Incredible Hulk and a little bit of it was his questionable shopping. 

“I remember when he stepped on the ice and there were like six of us at a summer skate. This guy is jumping around, falling all over the place. You’re like, ‘Man, this guy’s a mess!’ But that’s really what you’ve seen from him for like the last 16 years is the energy that he brings and just how much he loves playing the game.”

Johnson: “He came in with his own style — the tinted visor, the yellow laces and the dangly lace around his pants; the whole bit. He was his own player; his own guy for sure. 

“There were definitely stereotypes about him. They were wrong but there’s no denying that there were stereotypes about European players or college players or Russian players. Everyone kind of had a label attached to them.

“He was supposedly more selfish and into scoring goals than he was into winning games. He was more interested in prioritizing playing for Russia in the World Championships than he would be for playing for Stanley Cups. That kind of language existed; that maybe he would be soft or someone who you could intimidate physically. It was all baloney, just garbage stuff, but stuff that might have been floating around a little bit at that time in the world.”

The lead-up to the Ovechkin goal

By the time Ovechkin arrived in Arizona on Jan. 14, 2006, his legend was already growing. He had scored two goals in his first NHL game against Columbus. He had just scored all three goals in a 3-2 OT win in Anaheim one night earlier. In the game after facing the Coyotes he delivered a memorable hit to Blues hulking defenseman Eric Weinrich that made highlight reels. 

He had 30 goals in 43 games and he was well on his way to 52, the third highest single-season total by a rookie in NHL history behind Teemu Selanne (76) and Mike Bossy (53).

The Capitals had two nights off in Arizona before they played the Coyotes on MLK Day in 2016, so they held their rookie dinner at Mastro’s Ocean Club in Scottsdale.

Meanwhile, the Coyotes were 22-21-1, third in the Pacific Division and clinging to playoff hopes as the ninth team in the West. Their coach was Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring record holder. In goal was Boucher, who had celebrated the two-year anniversary of his modern-era shutout streak one week earlier. And behind the bench were assistant coaches Rick Tocchet and Rick Bowness; the latter of whom ran the penalty-killing unit and knew that Ovechkin would be a major point of focus.

Halpern: “Everyone had to put money on the board in Anaheim so that we could make sure it was a good weekend. Then, when Ovi had the hat trick in Anaheim, it kind of set up the whole weekend. 

“Brendan Witt’s contract was up so the big talk at the rookie dinner was if he was going to re-sign or get traded (he was eventually traded to Nashville). At the rookie dinner, every time Witter tried to speak, the whole team would chant, ‘One more year! One more year!’

“I wasn’t on the ice when Ovi scored the goal against Phoenix because I was hurt so I was in the stands, but the first thing he said in the huddle after the goal was, ‘One more year! One more year!’ I thought that was pretty cool to do that in that moment after that kind of goal. It kind of summed up his personality. To us, he was such an excited, total team guy.” 

Boucher: “Before the game, I was thinking they weren’t very strong so maybe this was a chance for us to get a win because we weren’t very strong either, but we were still hanging around. You hope that you can win games like that because you don’t get them too often.

“That day was also my son’s third birthday (Ottawa drafted Tyler Boucher 10th overall at the 2021 NHL Draft). We were playing a rare afternoon game so we were having a birthday party afterward for him. I have this photo of him up in a booth with his arms raised watching me. It’s like the cutest picture ever.”

Tyler Boucher was in attendance for Alex Ovechkin's favorite goal.
Tyler Boucher watches his dad face Alex Ovechkin on Jan. 16, 2006. (Photo courtesy of Brian Boucher)

Bowness: “When you’re defending Ovi, you’ve got to make sure you get the right players on the ice to defend him. You’ve got to know where he is, you’ve got to know how powerful he is. You’ve got to know all his strengths, but it wasn’t as simple, or I guess as known as it is now. They didn’t have Backström back then. They weren’t set up then like they’ve been for years now.

“He would have definitely been part of our game plan and they weren’t that strong of a team, but I don’t think any of us had any idea what was coming — in the game or in his career.”

Johnson: “I played 80 games that season so I only missed a couple, but I missed that one because I think I had a strained neck or something. I wasn’t even in the dressing room, which is where I would usually watch games from. I was in the press box staring down so that was my first time watching him live. 

“We had already seen some highlights from his season to that point. He was so physical. That was the part that was maybe the most shocking. The shot was well advertised, but the fact that he hit everything that moved and weighed 230 pounds — it was so unusual and so surprising that he was able to do all those things at that level in his first year.”

The goal

The scouting report on Ovechkin was that of a shooter. In retrospect, that makes sense. Ovechkin has become known as one of the greatest shooters in NHL history, alongside guys such as Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Bobby Hull, Auston Matthews and others.

Ovechkin, a right-handed shot, also was known to favor his off wing when attacking through the neutral zone into the offensive zone. If he had space, he would alter the angle of his shot and quickly release it. If the defender kept a tight gap, he would often try to go between his opponent’s legs and then drive to the net, or use the defenseman as a screen.

Arizona wasn’t known as a knowledgeable hockey market just a decade into the Coyotes’ existence, but more than 14,000 fans turned out to see Ovechkin in Glendale on a weekday holiday.

Pang: “When Washington came to Arizona, we set up an interview with their public relations people either during a commercial break or at the end of the first period. Ovi came over to me between the benches and we did an on-ice interview. He was more than accommodating and we were getting to a point in the Coyotes season where you knew it wasn’t going anywhere. 

“In fact, I think we interviewed him again after the game because of the goal and Wayne’s reaction to it. That interview spot is the same where Tyson Nash does them now, between the benches. It’s got a bit of a riser so you’re kind of above everybody. You have a great vantage point and when you get excited everybody can hear you because there was no glass between the benches at that point.” 

Mara: “He comes down on the far boards. I come over to play him one-on-one and it’s sort of textbook play where it’s like, ‘OK, put your stick between his legs, push him in the chest and try to get him down.’ He cut across, I did all that, put him on his back and the next thing you know, I turned around, the puck was in the net and I was like, ‘What the heck happened?’

“Seventeen years later, I still wonder what I could have done different.”

Boucher: “I knew he had a great shot and I knew that he liked to shoot it through the D, typically from the other side; his off wing. But he’s coming down the strong side, we’re losing 5-1, it’s the third period, he doesn’t have any passing options and I just wanted to be aggressive because if he shoots it, I wanted to make sure I was out far enough to at least get a piece of it. That’s why I was so far out on that side.

“When he fell, he kept moving. As a goalie, when you move laterally, you want to move back to your post, ideally, but how many feet did he move it from his initial point from the right wing all the way to the bottom of the left circle? It had to have been 30-plus feet. So I think I gave a couple pushes on my skate, thinking that he’s going to whack at it. I’m shuffling, shuffling and I’m in position, but by the time he hits it, I was so far out of position because I didn’t move diagonally back to the post so I was no longer in a position to make the save. I had no idea he was gonna be able to do what he did.

“It was the sixth goal in a 6-1 loss so initially, that was more demoralizing because you just allowed another one. I didn’t realize until I got up and looked at the scoreboard and saw what he did. Then I was like, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’

Bowness: “When Paul came back to the bench I said, ‘Paul, you just played a textbook, one-on-one. That’s how you play a one-on-one. You separated the puck from the man, you knocked him down and you stayed with him. You did your job.’ You couldn’t play a one-on-one any better, but somehow, this guy gets the curve of his blade on the puck when he’s not even looking at the net and puts it in the net. That’s hockey.”

Doan: “Steve Gainey’s reaction is the best (laughs). He was backchecking and when he gets there he throws up his hands and kicks the ice like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It was one of those plays that was so unbelievable that you’re thinking: ‘Did he mean to do that? Was that all on purpose?’ And then when you watch the replay you’re like, ‘Holy man, that’s crazy.'”

Pang: “My voice is quite loud and I get quite excited. I remember trying to kind of maintain my composure during the call at the beginning, but Curt Kielback makes such an incredible call on play-by-play. He says, ‘Just when you thought it was no longer possible.’ I’m in awe at that point that he ended up on his back and spun around and hooked it where the heel of the blade attaches to the stick. I was just in shock that he pulled it off and that it went in the net at such a severe angle. And when I saw it again, that’s when I got really excited. You can actually hear it in my voice, how brilliant the goal was.”

Halpern: “I could hear Pang and the guys doing the game. Like I said, it was a tough season overall. I think we were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs in October (laughs) but that weekend was special and that goal — there’s nothing like that. You just kind of try to process what you just saw. It looks awkward, right? Like you still can’t really figure out how he’s able to shoot that puck. And then when you watch replays and see Boyd Gordon sitting at the back post, you’re like, ‘Thank god Boyd Gordon doesn’t tap it in.’ The joke was always that if Boyd Gordon had put that in, it would have been the greatest assist of all time. Instead, it’s kind of Ovi’s signature goal.” 

Gretzky (who can be seen watching the scoreboard in disbelief): “I had two thoughts: ‘How can five guys on the ice not stop a guy on his knees with a rolling puck?’ And then, ‘Shit, my record could be in trouble.'”

Ovechkin (when asked if he saw Gretzky looking at the scoreboard): “I didn’t see that. Only after I saw it. Yeah, of course, it was a special moment.”

The aftermath of the Ovechkin goal

At Ovechkin’s current pace, he will break Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring record sometime early in the 2024-25 season. He is on pace for 52 goals this season — at age 37 — which would break his own NHL record for the oldest player to top 50 goals in a season.

There is some debate about whether Gretzky could have scored more goals had he set his mind to it. He had 92 goals one season and that feels like a record that will never be broken or even approached.

But such speculation is just that. It can never be proven or quantified. It didn’t happen, while Ovechkin’s rise to the No. 1 spot on that list above feels all but certain. He may even reach 1,000 goals when it’s all said and done.

A look at Alex Ovechkin's record chase.
The NHL’s all-time goals leaders as of Monday. (Source:

Ovechkin has displayed remarkable longevity, consistency and durability (so durable that there is a website dedicated to his toughness). He has only missed more than four games in a season twice and he has never missed more than 12. He has also topped 50 goals nine times, which is tied with Gretzky and Mike Bossy for the most 50-goal seasons in NHL history.

What’s more telling is twofold: Gretzky himself considers Ovechkin to be the greatest goal scorer of all-time, and Ovechkin is accomplishing this in an era where goal scoring is much harder than it was in Gretzky’s era.

Just like that goal he scored in Glendale 17 seasons ago.

Ovechkin: “Nobody thought this was going to be ‘The Goal.’ We came back after [the] road trip and I have to go to ESPN studio (in Bristol, Conn.) to record the video to explain. I was like, ‘They want to talk about goal?’ Now this is like famous. I had no idea.” 

Johnson: “I think Gretz said something after the game to the effect of: That’s the greatest goal he’s ever seen. Gretz generally has a really good sense of hockey history. I mean, he scored about 1,000 goals so if he’s saying it you know it carries some weight and you know it’s something that will be remembered.”

Mara: “I still get reminders and people razzing me about it. Every January 16, my phone starts blowing up so I text Bouch and say, ‘Thanks for all the calls.'”

Paul Mara has one of Alex Ovechkin's sticks.
While he was playing for the New York Rangers, Paul Mara acquired one of Alex Ovechkin’s old-model sticks. (Photo courtesy of Paul Mara)

Boucher: “My wife warned me right when I came off the ice after that game. She grabbed me and she says, ‘I know you’re upset but it’s your son’s birthday party so you need to turn it around. You need to put a smile on your face.’

“I think I crushed about six Amstel Lights after the game just to neutralize myself so that I could be social. I took that loss hard.”

Bowness: “The 80s were wide open hockey — poorly coached hockey with a lot of bad goaltending. The coaching and the goaltending get better every year now. There’s such a structure to how we play now, and the goaltenders are all big and they’re all great athletes. That wasn’t the case in the 80s so he has faced greater coaching and greater goaltending than anyone has, and all of the game plans today are set up to stop him.

“Yes, he is the greatest goal scorer of all-time. He’s earned it.”

Halpern: “I’m a little surprised that he considers this his favorite goal when I’m sure there are Stanley Cup goals and playoff goals that he holds pretty, pretty dear. But I will say this: I’ve been around guys like Steven Stamkos or Peter Bondra or Ovi; these guys who score goals at unreal rates. Some of those special goals I think they hold dear because they are able to score where other people can’t score; do something nobody can do. I don’t think another player has done something like that since and I’m not sure it will ever be done again. Special players are able to do special things.”

Doan: “I love Ovi and I think he’s awesome. My son (Josh) loves Backström and he’s been adamant for the last two or three years that Ovi was going to break the record. I am a Gretzky fan through and through so I’m like, ‘No, there’s no way he’s gonna get there.’ But he keeps defying all the odds and he just keeps going. It’s incredible what he’s doing.”

“Yes, he is the greatest goal scorer of all time, hands down, and regardless of whether he gets the record or not. He did most of it in an era when no one could score. He’s breaking the record that no one thought could be broken. He continues to be the gold standard for goal scoring.”


All illustrations by ALLCITY Network’s Eric Wedum

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter 

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