- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

One player looked relieved, if tired. The other still appeared to be in shock.

The Capitals’ two stars returned from the Winter Olympics in Sochi in different states of mind on Tuesday. Alex Ovechkin, though disappointed his team failed to medal in front of its home fans, received a far bigger scare when his father, Mikhail, suffered a heart attack on Feb. 16.

The loss to Finland was a crushing setback for Russian hockey, which hasn’t medaled at an Olympics since earning bronze at Salt Lake City in 2002. Ovechkin took heat for his play – one goal on 24 shots in five games – and accepted the criticism. But he also still had his dad. If his countrymen had lost their perspective, maybe Ovechkin had found his.

Nicklas Backstrom, on the other hand, looked little better than he did two days ago in Sochi, where he was pulled from the lineup just hours before the gold-medal final between Sweden and Canada after failing a drug test. It turned out to he had too much pseudoephedrine in his system (190 micrograms per milliliter) thanks to taking the allergy medicine Zyrtec-D. The International Olympic Committee allows levels of only 150 micrograms/milliliter.

A contingent of Swedish media was on hand at Kettler Iceplex and grilled Backstrom about how and why he failed the drug test. The questions, all in English, had to be asked, but Backstrom’s jaw clenched and once he tersely said “Next question” when pressed on if “as an athlete shouldn’t you always be certain what kind of medicine you take?”

Ovechkin, meanwhile, cracked a few jokes and smiled. He apologized again to his fellow Russians for letting them down and fielded a question about the criticism he’s taken in the wake of the loss, including from his own coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdino, graciously. After learning that his father had fallen ill, he was able to see him in the hospital in Sochi. The loss to Finland suddenly didn’t matter much anymore.

And that’s exactly what Caps coach Adam Oateswants. Did Ovechkin have a perfect tournament? No. He is a world-class goal scorer and he couldn’t find a way to break through against Finland when it mattered most. It is a short window – five games – but players, especially from the host country, know the deal going in.

“To be honest with you I don’t think [Bilyaletdino] means criticism,” Ovechkin said. “It’s just situation when my job to score goals and I didn’t score lots of goals out there. I score one on my first shot and that’s it. Of course the most criticism I’m going to have is [how] I’m going to criticize me. I have chances. I have moments to score the goals, I play with great players out there, but I didn’t. It’s blame on me and nothing I you can say.”

It’s a tiny sliver of his career, but for Ovechkin it will go on the resume right beside all the other heartbreaking playoff losses his teams have suffered in Washington. In Russia, this rockets to the top of the list ahead of the 2010 debacle in Vancouver. Fair or not, it’s the world he’s lived in since bursting onto the international stage as a teenager.

Oates said before the tournament that he just hoped Ovechkin played well enough in Sochi to fight off such criticism and that if Russia lost it wouldn’t be held solely against him. That didn’t happen. But read between the lines and you can see the message Oates is passing on behind the scenes.

“In terms of how people lay it on [Ovechkin], I have my own opinions, which him and I talk about all the time,” Oates said. “In terms of his game, we talked before he left. He can only control himself, right? And I thought he’s done a great job and been professional about it, and we move on.”

In other words, there are issues with Russian hockey far beyond Ovechkin being held to one goal. There were rumors of infighting between the star NHL players and the same coach who publicly wondered why Ovechkin couldn’t score. There was a blueline that didn’t stack up against Sweden or the United States, let alone Canada’s dominant group.

The Russians just aren’t good enough right now and while Ovechkin deserves some share of the blame for their performance in Sochi, it seems that Oates, like Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting, wants him to take away another conclusion: It’s not your fault.

Whether outsiders believe that or not, maybe it’s exactly the message Ovechkin needs to hear as he tries to help the Caps reach the postseason for the seventh year in a row.

For his part, Backstrom said he spoke with his teammates – all of them – and promised that he would put this ordeal behind him. On Tuesday he looked like a man who, at age 26, was going to have a hard time with that. He was moments away from accomplishing a lifelong dream and it evaporated thanks to a mistake – by him, Sweden’s doctors, the IIHF doctors, the IOC. Choose whom you want to blame.

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