The final few weeks of the Capitals’ season already figured to be interesting, given how the team is doing its playoff tightrope dance. With 23 games to play, the Caps are just on the outside of playoff position with a difficult schedule ahead.
Given what happened Wednesday miles away in Sochi, Russia, things are going to be considerably more interesting.
Will there be an Olympics hangover for Alex Ovechkin, the reigning NHL most valuable player and captain of the Capitals? What will the Caps see over those final games? A sulking Ovi who drags the team down with him, or a determined Ovi who lifts the team with one of his spectacular stretches?
Colleague Thom Loverro touched on the topic before the Games and now it is a reality after Russia’s 3-1 defeat at the hands of Finland on Wednesday in the quarterfinals. Ovechkin will return to D.C. without a medal. He scored a quick goal in Russia’s opener and didn’t have another.
The Olympics were nothing less than a crushing disappointment for the entire Russian team. Ovechkin was less than brilliant, though hardly alone. Anyone who pins Russia’s failures on him is being overly harsh. It was definitely a team effort.
But the mood of the rest of the Russians doesn’t matter here. “Inside, I’m absolutely empty,” Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk said through a translator, as reported by the Associated Press. That’s for the Detroit Red Wings to digest.
The agony of an entire country doesn’t matter here.
The only thing that matters in Washington is how Ovi reacts when the Caps resume their season Feb. 27 against the Panthers in Florida.
“We had a good start, score [on the] power play, feel pretty good,” AP quoted Ovechkin as saying. “Few mistakes cost us the game. We tried to score another one, but we didn’t score. No emotion right now.”
There’s your worry. Does he get it back or does the malaise last?
We’ve learned a lot about Ovi during his days with the Capitals, most of it good. He is a breathtaking talent. He’s a three-time MVP and none was a fluke. He’s leading the NHL in goals this season.
He’s also a bit of an enigma, capable of disappearing for long stretches. We’ve seen the “only one goal” thing before, just last season against the Rangers in the playoffs. He scored in the opener and didn’t score again as the Caps lost in seven games.
One thing we also know for sure: He has a lot of pride, particularly in his home country he loves so much.
But this was his only shot at an Olympics in Russia. He wasn’t the captain of his team but he was its face. He went to great lengths to be part of the pre-Games torch relay just as the Caps were beginning preseason. Before the NHL went all-in with these Games, Ovechkin made it clear he’d be going anyway.
The Games in his beloved Russia? No way he was missing that.
Is Ovechkin drained? How quickly will the endless questions — and they will continue to come fast and furious — wear on him?
Does he sulk and disappear? Or does he use this disappointment as some sort of fuel and go on another of his 15-goals-in-10-games kind of runs? The fear, frankly, is that the hangover will last longer than anyone including Ovi would like.
Let’s say he does go on a goals barrage and carry the Caps into the playoffs. Maybe they win a couple of series. Maybe he wins his fourth MVP.
He still won’t have an Olympic medal. He’ll still have the memory of the sorrow in Sochi.
His mental toughness will be tested like never before. His teammates will do whatever they can to help him get past the disappointment. For all the Caps’ flaws, bad character isn’t on the list. They’ll remind Ovi how important he is to their chances, how much they need him.
The burden, though, is all on Ovi. Only he can chase these demons from his head. Only he can get his mind right and get ready to be a force for the Capitals again.
The Olympic hockey tournament rolls on, with a pair of what should be terrific semifinals on Friday. Finland plays Sweden in what should be a goalie showcase: Tuukka Rask against Henrik Lundqvist. That’s as good as it gets. Team USA plays Canada in a rematch of the 2010 gold medal game won by Canada on Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal.
Winners play Sunday for the gold. Losers play Saturday for the bronze.
Hopefully for Caps fans, the Ovechkin part doesn’t apply to the rest of this season. We’ll know soon enough.