SOCHI, Russia » Alexander Ovechkin hasn’t arrived yet, but his imprint is all over the Winter Olympics.
The Russian forward’s smiling face — featuring a gap where one of his front teeth should be — is on menus distributed aboard Sochi-bound flights on the Russian airline Aeroflot, on Coca-Cola machines in Olympic Park, and in advertisements for Coke. An official ambassador for the Games, Ovechkin was the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch after it was lighted in Greece and began its journey to Russia.
Whether the Washington Capitals winger and his teammates will win the last event — the men’s gold medal hockey game on Feb. 23 — will heavily influence whether Russia will consider these Games a success.
The Soviet Union’s Big Red Machine won seven of nine Olympic titles from 1956 through 1988, but that era is long gone. Russia hasn’t had its hands on Olympic gold since 1992, when a group of former Soviet republics played together under the Unified Team banner, and its last medal was a bronze in 2002.
There’s enormous pressure on the hockey team as a whole and Ovechkin in particular to win gold in the first Winter Olympics staged in Russia. The man who leads the NHL with 39 goals said he’s prepared.
"The Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians than any other athletes in the whole world," he told the Associated Press.
"And since I was a little kid and since everybody was a little kid, their dream was playing in Olympic Games, especially if we have a chance to represent our country in Sochi in Russia. It’s unbelievable and it’s going to be a great thing."
In trying to duplicate Canada’s feat of winning at home in 2010, Russia can count on a formidable offense led by Ovechkin, two-time NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh and winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who left millions of dollars in New Jersey to return to Russia and play for SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League. Team captain Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings normally would lead that list, but he suffered a lower-body injury on Jan. 1 and it’s not certain he will play.
The goaltending of Semyon Varlamov and 2013 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky figure to be a plus for Russia, but its defense is less than imposing and could be its downfall.
Canada and the U.S. have better depth than Russia, but each must defy its Olympic history and adjust to a surface that’s 15 feet wider than NHL rinks.
Canada, which won in Vancouver four years ago on Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal, hasn’t won gold outside North America since 1952. The U.S., which brought back 13 players from the 2010 runner-up squad, has never won gold outside its own country.
But it’s the home team that is feeling the most pressure.
"We just have to make people happy," Ovechkin told The Washington Post this week, "and if you want to make people happy, you have to win the games and medals. Of course, everybody knows we are going to have some problems with that pressure. But that’s good pressure. It’s going to be fine."
Helene Elliott, Los Angeles Times