When five members of the Capitals headed to Sochi for the Winter Olympics earlier this month, only captain Alex Ovechkin was under serious pressure to win a gold medal.
And while three of Ovechkin’s Washington teammates, Swedish forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson and American defenseman John Carlson, have advanced to tomorrow’s semifinals, The Great Eight and Russia were eliminated in the quarterfinals for a second straight Olympics, falling 3-1 to Finland yesterday in front of a stunned home crowd in Sochi.
“We try,” Ovechkin said in a brief postgame interview. “We fight. We play until the end. We lost. … It sucks. What else can I say?”
Backstrom and Johannson will win at least silver medals if the Swedes can defeat the Finns in tomorrow’s battle for Scandanavian supremacy while Carlson and Team USA face a stern test in their semifinal against Canada after whipping Martin Erat and the Czechs in the quarters.
So there’s a great chance that there will be at least one shiny Olympic bauble on hand when the Caps gather at Kettler IcePlex for the playoff push that begins next week. But the focus will, as usual, be on Ovechkin. How can the top goal-scorer of his time still not have won a team title in a competition including all of the world’s best players?
Ovi helped Russia win world championships in 2008 and 2012 after the Caps were eliminated from the playoffs, but many of the game’s greats were still back in North America during those tournaments.
The championships that really matter are those that end with the presentation of the Stanley Cup or Olympic gold. And for all of his talent and leadership – which he displayed again yesterday by being the only Russian player to stop for a Canadian broadcast crew after the loss – the 28-year-old Ovechkin just hasn’t come through.
During Ovechkin’s eight full seasons in Washington, the Caps missed the playoffs twice, were bounced in the opening round three times and in the second round three times. He has yet to reach the Eastern Conference finals, let alone skate with Lord Stanley’s hardware. And now Ovechkin has come up small again while skating for his country as the Russians failed to reach the Olympic semifinals for the second straight time after falling in the bronze medal game in 2006.
Ovechkin scored on his first shift of these Olympics and then not again in nearly five full games. Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaetdinov didn’t even use him during the shootout that decided last Saturday’s epic game against the Americans.
“It’s difficult to explain why we didn’t score, especially with the players who usually score for their [professional] teams, especially Alexander Ovechkin, who has scored [40 NHL goals this season].”
The Russians had other stars such as former New Jersey sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, but Ovechkin was the first Russian to be given the honor of carrying the Olympic torch and the one whose smiling face was plastered everywhere in Sochi.
So it will actually probably be a relief for Ovechkin to return to Washington even with the 11th-place Caps on the outside looking in at a playoff spot with just 23 games to play beginning Thursday at Florida.
Not that NHL commentators figure to be any kinder. Here’s what former standout center Jeremy Roenick had to say after the Russians were eliminated: “After that first minute [of the first game], I saw nothing from Alex Ovechkin. I actually saw a lot of misplays, a lot of miscues with the puck, missed shots, a lot of not digging in the corners. And Alex has to be really careful now not to be remembered — or not to have the stigma — of being a one-dimensional hockey player. Because in this tournament, he was non-existent.”
In fairness, Ovechkin had been more productive in postseason for the Caps with 30 goals and 29 assists in 51 games until he managed just a goal and an assist in the seven-game loss to the New York Rangers last May that ended with consecutive shutouts, the last one on home ice.
Ovechkin’s next test will be whether he can lead the Caps to their seventh straight playoff berth and then whether they can do anything of consequence once there. Baseball’s Ted Williams and football’s Dan Marino never won titles, but at least each once played for one. And basketball’s Karl Malone won Olympic gold.
Ovechkin certainly doesn’t want to be remembered as a latter-day Ernie Banks, a terrific player who never came close to celebrating a championship, but yesterday’s defeat moved him one step closer.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.