Analysis: February could define Ovechkin's careerby Dan Rosen
Russian forward Alex Ovechkin is a week away from arriving at a cauldron already bubbling on his native soil, where the opportunity for a career-defining moment is waiting near a resort city on the coast of the Black Sea.
Canada's Sidney Crosby vividly remembers what that felt like four years ago when the sports world turned its collective eye to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and a hockey-mad nation looked to No. 87 and his teammates for validation.
"In some ways you have to embrace it," Crosby told NHL.com. "You want to win so bad and you know the expectation is exactly that. You have to remind yourself that that's why you're a hockey player, you want to be in those situations because everyone does care that much and they are so passionate about it.
"I know for a fact that in Vancouver we used that energy to our advantage. It was a big boost being at home. We didn't let that pressure make us tentative. We embraced it."
Four years later, as the 2014 Sochi Olympics draw closer, Ovechkin is facing the same pressure and dealing with the same expectations that confronted Crosby.
Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals right wing, is the heart and soul of the Russian team picked to represent the home country in the ice hockey tournament, which starts Feb. 12. As much as these are Russia's games, and as much as they are President Vladimir Putin's way of showcasing his country to the world, these will be Ovechkin's Olympics.
Ovechkin was the only hockey player singled out as an official ambassador for these Games. He was the first Russian to run with the Olympic torch after it was lit in Olympia, Greece. He long ago made the bold proclamation that he would find a way to play in the Sochi Olympics even if the NHL and NHL Players' Association didn't agree to send its players there.
Ovechkin got his chance to step on the world's stage and conquer it with the power, speed and fearlessness fans have become so accustomed to and so fascinated with during his NHL career.
In a little more than one week, Ovechkin will be in Olympic Park in Sochi preparing to tackle the enormous responsibility of doing the one thing Russians everywhere are counting on him to do: Bring the country its first gold medal in men's hockey (the Soviet Union won seven gold medals and the Unified Team won gold in 1992).
"When I think about it, it's probably going to be one of the greatest moments in my life to represent my country in the Olympic Games and it's going to be the Russia Olympic Games," Ovechkin told NHL.com. "I'm lucky to be where I am right now and I appreciate it."
Ovechkin can't conquer Sochi alone and he certainly can't do it yet. There is still business to take care of here in North America, where things aren't going so well for the Capitals, who finished January 4-7-3, their worst month of the season.
Sochi may be on Ovechkin's mind, and it may have been a contributing factor to his minus-5 rating in a 5-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday. But he bounced back with his 39th goal and 15th overtime winner of his NHL career that led the Capitals to a 6-5 victory against the Red Wings, a game televised nationally on NBC that served as an Olympic preview for the network that holds the American rights to the League and the Games.
As many as 12 players preparing to go to Sochi were on ice Sunday at Verizon Center. Ovechkin was joined by six players from Sweden, and two each from the United States and Slovakia. Pavel Datsyuk, Ovechkin's Olympic teammate, has missed 13 straight games with a lower-body injury.
SOG: 286 | +/-: -18
He got another up-close look at Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, who will wear the "C" for Sweden at the Olympics. Ovechkin had a goal, an assist, seven shots on goal, and 15 attempts at the net Friday night at Joe Louis Arena, and was held scoreless Sunday before scoring the game-winner.
Then there is Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, who likely will be the third goalie for the United States. He made 26 saves Friday, stopping Ovechkin's first six shots before Ovechkin beat him with seven seconds remaining on a one-timer through traffic from the left point.
Howard made 22 saves in Detroit's loss to Washington. Jonas Gustavsson, who backed up Howard on Sunday, will be one of Sweden's backups to Henrik Lundqvist in Sochi.
It was on Ovechkin to find a way through it all to get the Capitals a win that could help turn their season in the right direction, and he found a way Sunday. The cauldron is already bubbling in Sochi, but the pressure is beginning to mount in D.C. too. Ovechkin is at the center of it all, exactly where he wants to be.
What he does this month will help define his career.