Alex Ovechkin didn’t need a calendar Tuesday to prove the 2014 Olympics in Sochi were just around the corner. He showed up with his usual flare while abusing the Sabres for two goals in the first five minutes, setting up the overtime winner and cranking up his game as he prepares for the Winter Games in Russia.
Ovechkin fired a bazooka into the top corner and moments later scored on a deflection, giving the Capitals an early 2-0 advantage and adding to his lead in the NHL goal-scoring race. He handed Washington a 5-4 victory with a perfect feed to Mike Green for the easy winner a minute into overtime.
“Boring game,” he said, “but a fun game.”
If that was boring, what passes for exciting?
Ovechkin is 28 years old and in his ninth NHL season, no longer just a fun-loving kid with a gap-toothed smile. He has 38 goals and 55 points in 49 games and is still the most dangerous player on the planet if not the best one. But he also has assumed another responsibility as his country’s biggest star.
He has become Russia’s unofficial chief ambassador to the United States and Canada, a reassuring voice with suspicions rising and tensions mounting over terrorism threats in his homeland. He found himself suppressing fears over safety for part of the morning Tuesday before striking fear into the Sabres for much of the evening.
“Security-wise, every event can be dangerous,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Russia or the U.S. or Brazil. Anything can happen out there. That’s why we have security. It’s why we have trust in our people. I trust my people who are going to be responsible for security.
“I’m going there not afraid,” he said. “Security is going to be very good. I don’t think the government or the president wants to risk the reputation of Russia to be damaged by some idiots who want to do that. I’m sure it’s going to be fine.”
The latest hint of worry came earlier this week from NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, who told The Associated Press via email that the league would re-evaluate sending players to Sochi if “something significant” (translation: terrorist attack) transpired between now and opening ceremonies Feb. 9.
In other words, the NHL would consider staying home. That’s fine, but Ovechkin was intent on going home. He was far more concerned about getting his game in order and leading Russia back to respectability than anything else. President Vladimir Putin made it clear he wants Russia to be more competitive.
Hockey will be the main attraction in Russia. Ovechkin will be the main attraction for Russia. The nation is counting on him. “It’s not about my president,” he said. “It’s not about what we’re going to do out there. We just have to make people happy. If you want to make people happy, you have to win the games. You have to win medals. Everybody knows we’re going to have some problems with the pressure, but it’s good pressure. It’s going to be fine.”
Ovechkin is a frightening player when he’s right, and he was the most dangerous player on the ice against Buffalo. He finished with two goals and two assists, giving him five goals and seven points in his last three games. If his last three performances were any indication, everybody else might as well stay home. In fact, it was never a bad idea.
Long before safety was an issue, top NHL officials were conflicted about sending their players overseas for the Olympics. Several valid arguments against participating, other than security, emerged in North America about the headaches that came with Russia. The travel across eight time zones will take a toll on players when they arrive, again when they return. The game is certain to be compromised.
The 2010 Winter Games were ideal for selling the game, but that doesn’t apply everywhere. Vancouver felt like another road game. The games were played on smaller, NHL-sized rinks. And with the United States playing Canada for the gold medal, it drew the massive audience the NHL desired. Four years earlier, it was the opposite. Jet-lagged players were exhausted when they arrived in Italy, the games were terrible and not enough fans paid attention. People who did watch saw a lousy product. It wasn’t worth the aggravation, and the NHL failed to send the message it intended.
There’s a good chance for another mess to evolve in Russia. You can’t help but wonder if the NHL agreed to participate in Russia partly because it buckled to Ovechkin, who announced four years ago that he would play in Sochi with or without the NHL’s blessing. He wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to play on a world stage for Russia, in Russia. It was a power play, and he had an advantage as one of the NHL’s biggest stars. Other Europeans quietly cheered him from afar. Many were prepared to join him if the league decided to sit out. The NHL took its time before announcing it would participate, but it was a formality in the end. The league had little choice.
And now, with concerns over security and no means of controlling the situation, you can’t help but wonder if the NHL is having second thoughts. Daly should know that even if “something significant” happens between now and Feb. 9, the league isn’t going to prevent Ovechkin from playing.
Apparently, nobody can stop him.
“I said what I said, and I’m not going to take my words back,” he said. “If something happens, I’m still going.”