The amount of pressure that was on the shoulders of the Russian hockey team leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics has been immense, but most of that pressure was placed on the shoulders of one player: Alex Ovechkin. After all, he is the country’s biggest star, his face adorns almost every inch of Sochi and his previous failures in the NHL and past Olympics could be forgotten for a time if he went back to North America with a gold medal around his neck.
The Russians failed to medal for the third-straight Olympic tournament after getting beaten by Finland, and anyone with a voice in hockey and in sports are sharpening their teeth to sink into Ovechkin for once again failing to take his team to the next level. It’s already started.
But it’s not his fault the Russians lost. It’s Team Russia‘s.
Sure, they needed him to break through when it counted, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Throughout the tournament, the team looked more like a bunch of individuals playing together rather than a cohesive unit. Head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov made more than a handful of questionable decisions all tournament (including starting Semyon Varlamov over Sergei Bobrovsky against the Finns), and the power play was downright lousy.
Ovechkin is the most deadly shooter in the world right now. When the power play was deployed he was relegated to the point position, which is a place he hasn’t had much success with in recent years. Why wouldn’t the the coach put him at the left circle, a spot where he has had tremendous success recently? When he did find his way there (where he has scored almost all of his 15 power play goals this season), few of his teammates found him to try and tee up his one-timer.
Removing Alex Semin from the top line with he and Evgeni Malkin after just one game was another mistake. Those three players had 54 shots on net combined but suffered from an insanely low shooting percentage. Sometimes the puck doesn’t go in the net — that’s hockey. Does that mean the player pumping 24 shots on goal with only one going in isn’t trying? Hardly.
People are going to poke and prod at Ovechkin. They will say he needed to care more or that he needs to change his game. These are the same people who want him to play defense one day but want him to score goals as soon as his numbers start going down.
The truth is, even if the Russians had medaled or even won gold, it still wouldn’t have been enough. Someone, somewhere would have still said he didn’t score enough goals or that he didn’t look like his head was all into the game. Or they’ll say that the gold didn’t matter when the Capitals lose in the playoffs again because the Stanley Cup is what really counts. It’ll never be enough.
He’s not a leader, they’ll say. He doesn’t have what it takes to win, they’ll say. He’s selfish, they’ll say. They’ll say this and they’ll say that, and they will be completely wrong.
Hockey is a team sport. No one person can win or lose a series by themselves. Yet, Ovechkin, an individual, will be criticized because it’s fashionable. A team wins a championship just like a team loses one. Sometimes one of the greatest players in the world just plays on a lousy team.