Just days before the biggest tournament of his hockey career, Alex Ovechkin is grinding.
There are endless interview requests to accommodate, a practice to get through and three NHL games to prepare for this week alone. Over the past four months Ovechkin has been navigating dual roles.
He remains the star of the Capitals, once again the league’s best scorer and a nightly highlight machine. And yet every minute brings him closer to the Winter Olympics in the Russian resort town of Sochi.
The opening ceremonies are on Friday. By Sunday, Ovechkin will be winging his way to his home country and his Olympics, facing the same thing that Canadian star Sidney Crosby did when Vancouver hosted the games in 2010: The weight of crushing expectations.
Less than a gold medal is not acceptable, not when the games are on home ice for what will be the one and only time in the careers of Ovechkin, Detroit Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk, the injured Russian captain, and Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin. This generation of Russian players will never get to compete for a gold medal in front of their countrymen again.
And yet Washington is finishing a grueling stretch of 17 games in 31 days. Every player in the NHL must deal with that crunch during an Olympics year. But only a few dozen of them actually participate and, at least this February, none face the expectations that Ovechkin and his teammates will once they get to Sochi.
“Of course, with some of the day offs it’s possible to recover, too,” Ovechkin said on Monday, a day after scoring the game-winning goal in overtime to lift the Caps to a much-needed victory. “Don’t think about hockey or the sticks, skates or drills. But the schedule right now is very hard.”
And it is about to accelerate. Russia has games against Slovenia on Feb. 13, the United States on Feb. 15 and Slovakia on Feb. 16. Then it will take three more wins to earn gold – possibly four if Russia somehow fails to earn an automatic bye into the quarterfinals.
By Feb. 23 it will all be over, a rare, frenetic whirlwind no team sporting event in the world can match. There will be little time to recover for what promises to be a punishing playoff chase in the Eastern Conference. Is this all too much even for Ovechkin?
“Yes and no. Yes because it is a lot thrown on a guy and I don’t think any of us can really understand how much it is,” Caps teammate Brooks Laich said. “But also no because once he gets out on the ice he can’t talk to [reporters]. He’s free of you guys. I think him getting out on the ice is really enjoyable.”
That’s been proven by Ovechkin’s on-ice results so far. A three-time winner at age 28, he’s in the running for the Hart Trophy again as the NHL’s most valuable player. Ovechkin has 39 goals. Only one other NHL player has reached even 30. He is also seventh overall in points with 58.
The Caps (25-22-9, 59 points) have been a mediocre team much of the season and sit in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division entering Tuesday’s home game against the New York Islanders. But they’re also just four points out of second place.
The frustrating days of 2010-11 and 2011-12 when critics harped on Ovechkin’s one-dimensional play and plummeting numbers are long gone. Laich noted a renewed enthusiasm that had been missing as Ovechkin struggled and Washington continued to fall short in the playoffs year after year.
Last January, during an early-season 3-2 loss in Toronto, Laich remembered Ovechkin scoring on a power play and barely registering any emotion – a simple pump of his arms, no smile, even though Washington had just taken the lead. Where was the player who used to throw himself into the boards after every score? He’d gone missing.
“That’s not our ‘O’. That’s not how he goes,” Laich said. “We know him differently than that. The enthusiasm’s easy to have when you’re winning hockey and you’re playing good hockey. But he brings it almost every night no matter what the situation. That’s kind of something unique about him.”