By Chris Gordon
Alex Ovechkin stepped onto the ice Wednesday afternoon, as usual, in a red sweater. But instead of saying Россия, his jersey said Washington Capitals. As the both captain of Team Russia and a nationalist, Ovechkin didn’t want to be in Arlington, Virginia, skating at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Instead, he wanted to be playing for a champion at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto along with Capitals teammates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov.
But the Russians ran into Canada in the semifinals, resulting in another international defeat. Back with the Capitals, Ovechkin tried to move past the loss.
“You can talk about what if, what if,” he said. “It was fun. It was nice to represent my country out there and we do our best.”
In four WCH games, Ovechkin managed just six shots and just as many penalty minutes. He sometimes racks up that many shots in a single period, let alone 12. Ovechkin did have two assists, including a beautiful one against Canada.
Ovechkin said the compacted schedule, especially players’ first games since the spring or early summer, made the World Cup “hard mentally.”
“You skate with the team probably like almost one week and this week you play three games and then you have to go to the tournament and elimination game,” Ovechkin told me. “If you lose one, basically you’re done. You can see, I think if it was during the year like Olympic Games I don’t think U.S. would lose, I don’t think Finland would lose. It would be a totally different tournament if it was during the year, not before the year when everybody not in shape, everybody never been in this position before. I think it’s good to have this tournament. It’s nice to be out there. But at the same time it’s hard to be in it 100 percent because maybe you’re not in shape, maybe you’re not in good conditioning or all the details.”
While Ovechkin struggled, Kuznetsov tied for the team lead in goals and points. But despite his success, Kuznetsov was still shaken by Russia’s poor finish.
“I know we had good chances to beat Canada, but we lost and we lost because we did our mistakes, stupid mistakes,” he said. “It’s hard to talk a little bit right now because you know lots of people back home they not happy right now because we lost.”
Like Kuznetsov, Orlov played well against supremely talented opponents. Associate coach and acting head coach Todd Reirden, who, as manager of the Caps’ defense, has talked to Orlov extensively on and off the ice since he returned from Toronto, the site of the WCH. Orlov played top minutes for Team Russia. He is expected to be in the top four this year Washington, possibly paired with Matt Niskanen.
“I think he’s in a really good place,” Reirden told me. “That’s great in terms of trying to take a positive and move forward with it.”
Orlov said the increased playing time helped him play more rounded game.
“When you play big role with more minutes and build your experience, you build your confidence,” he said. “If you do one mistake and they not put you on the bench, it not make you a better player.”
Despite the buzz around Kettler Capitals Iceplex with the Russians back in action, there was a raincloud hanging over the rink on the roof. Ovechkin has long insisted he will leave Washington to play for Russia in South Korea in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“I will go there,” Ovechkin said during World Cup media day.
Kuznetsov was also emphatic when asked about the prospect on Wednesday.
“I can give more than 100 percent for my country,” he said. “We lost, you know, that’s always tough. I know how years we can’t win against Canada or any team more than semifinal. It’s always tough. I’m glad to be on team and I know next Olympic game gonna be huge for us. We’re all gonna go and I don’t think about it.”
The NHL, however, looks increasingly likely not to halt the season to allow players to represent their countries on the biggest stage in sports.
“I don’t have a league reaction to that,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said recently of Ovechkin’s line in the sand. “If that became a prevailing view of a group of players, or a significant group of players, I might have a different view. But at this point it’s a single superstar player who will have a contract with one of our clubs, and the club will handle that within its own discretion.”
That puts the Capitals in a vexing situation, given Ovechkin’s captaincy and his 13-year, $124 million contract with the team. It could end up with Ovechkin bolting for the KHL first. But for now, Ovechkin is committed to the Capitals and excited to play for Washington.
“It’s nice to be back, obviously,” Ovechkin told reporters. “You just want to play. Practice is practice, but you just can’t wait when the atmosphere is back and everybody was talking about hockey and all the details, attention is there. … [Y]ou feel like the season’s gonna have to start right away because you miss this atmosphere and attention. Sometimes it just gets boring.”
Does that mean Ovi is ready to play a regular season NHL game right now? Not quite.
“KHL or Chinese League, maybe,” he told me.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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