For the past several months, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin has been pulled every which way, answering innumerable questions about facing the enormous expectations awaiting him and his Russian countrymen at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The hockey-crazed host nation is starved for international success. Not since earning bronze in 2002 has Russia medaled in an Olympic hockey tournament, and as an official ambassador to the Sochi Games, Ovechkin has been singled out among his teammates as the torchbearer of Russia's gold-medal pursuit.
On Sunday, Ovechkin boarded a flight to Sochi and was finally able to focus his undivided attention on his next opportunity to capture the team success that has eluded him throughout his career. The 28-year-old has readily admitted that the next two weeks could very well be the most important of his life.
Fully aware that Ovechkin will face unparalleled pressure and scrutiny, coach Adam Oates left his star winger with some carefully considered advice.
“What I said to him was, ‘You can’t control your coach, you can’t control your linemates, your teammates, how much you’re going to play, the luck of the draw, the bad bounce. It’s a one-week window. All you can control is how you play,’” Oates said. “’You’ve got to go over there and be the fastest, hardest working guy you can possibly be because that’s what they’ll remember -- if something bad happens.’
"Something good happens, great. It’s a Cinderella story, it’s a fairytale. That’s what we all hope for him but you can’t guarantee that. I just want him to come out feeling like he left it on the table, he did the best he could possibly do. Hopefully that’s what people will talk about. I think no matter what happens if he does that he’ll come back with a positive experience.”
Four years ago in Vancouver, the Russians were eliminated in humiliating fashion, the recipient of a 7-3 quarterfinal blowout at the hands of the homestanding Canadians. The widely held belief is that Ovechkin internalized the sixth-place finish, which affected him upon his return to the NHL.
Leading the league with 42 goals and 89 points before the break that season, Ovechkin scored eight goals in his final 18 post-Olympic games before top-seeded Washington fell victim to a seven-game first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens, arguably one of the biggest upsets in Stanley Cup Playoff history.
It is all but expected that how the Russians fare in Sochi -- whether it be good or bad -- will have some kind of lingering effect on Ovechkin, who once again enters the Winter Olympics as the NHL's leading goal-scorer with 40. The Capitals, who will reconvene later this month outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, can ill afford to have their captain's mind elsewhere.
With that said, Oates encouraged Ovechkin to simply be at his best, regardless of the result.
“It’s a tremendous amount of pressure and you can only control so many of the variables," Oates said. "It’s not like it’s an individual sport, it’s different. I just want him to go over there and be flying so people go -- no matter what happens -- ‘Ovi showed up’. He did his part. That’s all you can control."
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