Alexander the Great's specter haunts Canada's golden dream
Alex Ovechkin and Russia crushed Canada's Olympic hopes in 2006
It's hard for Canadians to admit Ovechkin is the game's best player
The rivals are likely to battle for a gold medal that obsesses Canada
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It wasn't that Russia's star-studded lineup didn't look unstoppable or brilliant on Tuesday night; at times it did. But for its debut in the tournament that Team Canada coach Mike Babcock says could end up being "the best hockey event of all time," Russia often looked tight, too self-conscious. It held just a three-goal lead over Latvia early in the third period when Alexander Ovechkin jolted his team to life.
Scrambling off his knees, Ovechkin gathered in a pass high along the left wing and sent the puck sizzling into the net. The horn, the screaming filled Canada Hockey Place. And just like that, everything changed.
Bang-bang: Russia scored twice more in the next 125 seconds to seal their eventual 8-2 win, and if there had been any doubt that Ovechkin would be the hammering heart of the Russian bear here, it was now gone. Thus, as the clock closed in on 11 p.m., the 2010 Olympic ice hockey tournament -- for most Canadians, the only Winter games that matter -- began for real.
Yes, most natives might point to the instant, seven hours earlier, when Team Canada hit the ice in blood-red sweaters for the first time, against Norway; others will give the nod to Jarome Iginla's tension-busting one-timer that touched off the home team's 8-0 avalanche. But Norway didn't crush Canada's hopes four years ago; Norway is not the top team in the world; Norway isn't the rival against which, for four decades, hockey Canada has measured itself. And, of course, Norway isn't led by the man Canadians fear most.
Ovechkin, at 24, is the most captivating talent in the game, a stone-cold kneecapper with a safecracker's touch. He scored the go-ahead goal in Russia's knockout win over Canada at the Turin Olympics and has gotten better each year since; holder of back-to-back NHL Most Valuable Player awards, the Washington Capitals forward leads the league in points, is tied with Canada center Sidney Crosby with 42 goals and, stunningly enough, even has more assists than the league's premiere playmaker. In their last can-you-top-this? showdown, on Super Bowl Sunday, Ovechkin bested Crosby's two early goals with a hat trick and the decisive assist in a 5-4 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"He's got a shot that's dangerous from anywhere," Crosby says. "He can beat you with his moves or his hands, but just being unpredictable, that's his biggest thing. There are games we played in the playoffs [when] he scored a wrist shot from the blue line and then another where he was really wide and got a one-timer. We kept him to the outside the whole game, didn't even think he had a chance, and all of a sudden it's in the back of the net. You can feel like you're playing a perfect game and all of sudden it's one shot and it's in. He's just dangerous."
Still, it's not just his touch that makes Canada nervous. Hair matted to his skull, a what-me-worry grin belying impeccable technique, Ovechkin looks more like he crawled out of a cave than from some Beltway duplex. Hurling himself into the glass after scores, thriving on attention, mischief and mayhem, he resembles no one so much as Max from Where the Wild Things Are powered, though, by a supercharged motor that leaves peers grasping for metaphor.
"Alexander's energy is phenomenal; he's like a nuclear power plant," says Russia's coach, Vyacheslav Bykov.
"He's atomic," says Russian veteran Sergei Fedorov. "Obviously he's the best player in the world the last two years, probably gearing up to get a third [MVP award]. What can you say? He's a very powerful young man with a lot of talent and a crazy, crazy shot."
"It just doesn't seem like there's much that he can't do," says Team USA center Chris Drury, recalling a non-highlight film sequence against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden. "He was forechecking, didn't even have the puck, and he was able to get to one corner, knock our guy down, get to the other corner and knock our D down and then get to the middle. He almost beat the puck to all three places, and still had enough energy to knock all three of our D down, and then continued on to play another 30, 40 seconds. I know everything he does with the puck, but just the pure strength in his legs, his capacity to play at that level for a minute, minute and a half, is to me amazing."