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Capitals need top stars to shake Sochi disappointment

by Adam Vingan

ARLINGTON, Va. -- When Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom returned to the Washington Capitals' practice facility on Tuesday, there was a general sense things were finally back to normal.

Their respective quests for gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics having come to turbulent ends, Ovechkin and Backstrom rejoined their teammates for an upbeat, hour-long practice as if the past two weeks were nothing more than a distant memory.

As the Capitals resume their schedule on Thursday against the Florida Panthers, that is the mindset Washington's two star forwards must foster in order to lead their team, currently sitting 11th in the Eastern Conference, to its seventh consecutive Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance.

"I was talking to the guys today and I said, 'I'll deal with this on the side,'" Backstrom said. "I think we have a really important situation here in Washington right now. We're not in a playoff spot and we have to look forward to that. We have a game on Thursday and we're trying to get ready as we usually are.

"I'm focusing on Washington right now, how we have to deal with this as a team, how we have to win hockey games. That's what I'm going to do."

Neither Ovechkin nor Backstrom could have envisioned the nightmarish conclusions to their Olympic experiences. Ovechkin, the poster child of Russian hockey and the torchbearer of the host nation's gold-medal effort, scored one goal in five games as Russia was eliminated in the Olympic quarterfinals by Finland. He later found out his 62-year-old father, Mikhail, underwent heart surgery while he was participating in the tournament.

"He's fine," Ovechkin said of his father. "Just talked to him [Tuesday] morning, he's getting better and that's probably the thing I [most] worry about. … It was a great feeling to see what's happening and how he's feeling. That's the most important thing."

Meanwhile, Backstrom was withheld from Sweden's 3-0 loss to Canada in the gold-medal game on Sunday after testing positive for elevated levels of pseudoephedrine, which was a result of an over-the-counter allergy medication the 26-year-old has taken intermittently for seven years.

"Obviously, it's not fun to deal with," said Backstrom, who said a decision regarding the status of his silver medal should be determined within the next two weeks. "I don't wish [anyone] to have to go through this, if I'm going to be honest with you. It's not fun."

Understandably, coach Adam Oates expects some lingering feelings of disappointment. But he also knows there is little time to dwell on the past.

"I think they're going to move forward fine," Oates said. "They're both professionals. What happened is very difficult, no question. [Ovechkin's] country was the host country with huge expectations and their team didn't play very well, and in a short window of time that can happen.

"And [Backstrom's] situation is borderline unfair. It made it very difficult because it was the gold medal. He's a key player for their team and so for him it's very difficult, but it's our job to get him through it and to get him to focus on the Washington Capitals for the rest of the year."

One of five teams within three points of the East's final wild-card spot currently held by the Detroit Red Wings, the Capitals will rely heavily on Ovechkin, the NHL's leading goal-scorer, and Backstrom, the team's offensive catalyst, to prolong their season.

Washington faces one of the League's toughest schedules down the stretch, with all but two of its 23 remaining games against teams currently occupying playoff spots or within four points of a potential berth.

And with only 19 regulation and overtime wins, fourth fewest in the League, the Capitals do not have the benefit of a crucial tiebreaker and may have no choice but to overtake their opponents in points in order to qualify.

As they have for the past seven years, the Capitals will look to Ovechkin and Backstrom to help them attain the postseason success that has mostly eluded the franchise. With the Sochi Games behind them, that is where the team's star players have turned their attention.

"I think the Washington Capitals have to improve," Ovechkin said. "[We've] been in the playoffs [six] years and losing in the first round or second round. That's our goal, to move forward.

"We're going to fight and we're going to see what's going to happen. We have such a good group of guys who can handle the pressure who can fight through it, and we're going to do it."

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