Ovechkin. Assists: Penn and Teller. � This is a halting attempt to describe the
nearly indescribable six seconds of astonishing, mind-stretching hockey that
will always live in online video and highlight reels: the Impossible Goal.
Midway through the third period last Jan. 16 in Phoenix, Ovechkin, the blessed
Capitals left wing, gathered the puck at the red line and burst down the right
flank. Four strides over the blue line, retreating Coyotes defenseman Paul Mara
checked him, but Ovechkin made an inside move that took him partway around Mara
and pitched Ovechkin at a 45-degree angle toward the left corner of the rink.
Stumbling because of Mara's persistent checking, Ovechkin, now perhaps 10 feet
from goaltender Brian Boucher's net, at the lower edge of the left face-off
circle, corkscrewed himself onto his back, took his left hand off his stick,
cradled the puck with the hook of his blade and then, over his shoulder, like a
twirler manipulating her baton on homecoming day, shoved the puck into the
short side of the net past a stunned Boucher. So in summary, Ovechkin's 32nd
goal, one of 52 he scored during his rookie season, was a prone, one-handed,
upside-down, over-the-shoulder shot. And if all that fails to capture the
Impossible Goal, try this: abracadabra.
"I don't know
what was more amazing," says Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky, who, like
Ovechkin, could not resist glancing up at the Glendale Arena video board for
another look that afternoon. "That goal or him blowing a kiss to me that
day.... That goal was one of the prettiest I've ever seen. Guy Lafleur might
have scored a few in the 1970s that were pretty remarkable, and maybe I scored
a few nice ones, but not like that."
This was the year
that the NHL, fresh off the lockout, fell through a rabbit hole and mystically
came out the other side: Alex in Wonderland. Ovechkin and Penguins rookie
Sidney Crosby, the would-be Magic and Bird of the missing-teeth set, took their
marginalized sport and varnished it with a thick layer of conspicuous cool. In
another era their simultaneous arrival might have laid the foundation for a
two-decade Rocket Richard versus Gordie Howe or Gretzky versus Mario
Lemieux--type rivalry, but Ovechkin and Crosby are as much allies as foes,
cornerstones of a revitalized league that is trying to escape its niche. The
egalitarian, salary-capped world that has replaced the era of star-laden circus
teams might have damaged the NHL on a metaphysical level--as The Grand
Inquisitor notes in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers: When everyone is
somebody, then no one's anybody--but Ovechkin and Crosby proved ideal
counterweights in 2006, incandescent players for a game that had slogged
through a decade of drudgery.
"Know what I
like about them?" says Gretzky. "These guys only talk about how great
it is to play in the NHL. You never hear them saying, 'Ah, this is no good,'
or, 'Ah, I don't like that.' This league did go through a little time where
some guys were like, 'Why am I here? [The NHL is] lucky to have me.' That's
kind of been weeded out, especially with these kids. They strike me as two kids
who feel lucky to be here. That's their attitude, and if these guys are the
mainstays, everybody else will follow their lead. I love watching them because
they play hard every game."
The NHL, like a
proud parent bursting to brag about its precocious children, will be happy to
tell you how much better its league is now. Got a minute? Or, better yet, got
six seconds and Internet access? When the clip of the Impossible Goal winds
down and you've witnessed the first minor miracle of your lifetime, the only
thing you can do is genuflect and click again and again--world without end