ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin is no stranger to carrying the crushing weight of external pressures and expectations on his hulking shoulders. This season, however, he'll bear a double load.
Not only will the Washington Capitals captain be asked to improve upon his third Hart Trophy-winning season and lead his team past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 16 years, but as one of the faces of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he's also responsible for propelling his home country of Russia to the Olympic gold that has eluded it.
"Of course there's going to be pressure on us," Ovechkin said Tuesday of being the host nation. "It's going to be big pressure, and it's going to be nice pressure because we're going to play in front of fans, families, kids. I'm sure our president is going to be watching, and there is going to be big pressure for us."
Ovechkin has been asked by the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee to be the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch after it's lit in Olympia, Greece, on Sept. 29. Details are being ironed out by the Capitals and the Russian Olympic Committee, but the tentative plan is for Ovechkin to play in the Capitals' preseason game Sept. 27 against the Philadelphia Flyers and sit out of the preseason finale against the Chicago Blackhawks the next day. Ovechkin would return to Washington after carrying the torch and practice with the Capitals on Sept. 30 before flying to Chicago for the season-opener on Oct. 1.
"It's a huge honor for me," Ovechkin said. “I'm really proud the [Sochi Organizing Committee] asked me to do it. I talked to the Caps organization, I talked to my teammates and I explained everything. It's only a once-in-your-life opportunity to carry the torch and represent your country. Everybody says, 'We're happy for you.'
"I hope it's going to work because I really want to do it."
For the time being, the 27-year-old is in Washington and ready to start training camp, which begins Thursday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. The hairline fracture in his left foot he sustained while blocking a shot by New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in Game 6 of the teams' first-round playoff series has healed completely and he estimated his conditioning is around "70, 75 percent."
Ovechkin will spend the preseason working himself back into game shape and continuing to get used to playing right wing, the position move that breathed new life into his career last season. He scored a League-high 32 goals, including 23 in Washington's final 23 games, when the Capitals overcame a 2-8-1 start to win their fifth Southeast Division title in six seasons.
But they lost their opening-round series to the Rangers, and the question remains: Do Ovechkin and the Capitals have what it takes to challenge for a Stanley Cup as they move into the Metropolitan Division following realignment?
"Every year we're talking about it and every year, it's going to be the same question," Ovechkin said. "We just have to play better, especially at the start, to feel confidence. Of course, if you remember last year when we started, we was last in the whole League and then we figure out the system, figure out how we have to play, everybody knows their roles and we bounce back and then we make the playoffs.
"Mentally I think we're ready. We're going to have a full year, a full preseason, everybody's going to know the system much better than last year. We're going to have more confidence because everybody knows what to expect from each other and it's going to help."