SOCHI -- When Russia captain Pavel Datsyuk finished playing his first game of the 2014 Sochi Olympics against Slovenia on Thursday, he was asked how he felt.
The question was pertinent because Datsyuk had missed 14 games with the Detroit Red Wings because of a leg injury, and only returned in time to play the final two games before the NHL's break for the Olympics.
"I'm feeling good," Datsyuk said after the 5-2 win against Slovenia.
The problem was, he wasn't looking good.
He didn't look like Pavel Datsyuk.
Saturday, however, was a different story.
Datsyuk was flying all over the ice in a Group A matchup with the United States, the marquee game of the Olympic tournament's preliminary round, and scored both goals in regulation time before Russia lost in a shootout 3-2.
"Our fans helped a lot," Datsyuk said of the heavily partisan Bolshoy Ice Dome crowd of 11,678 that included Russian president Vladimir Putin. "They gave us lots of emotion and lots of energy. That helped me move.
"Helped us move all together."
Datsyuk tried his best to put the focus on the team, but the difference between his performance from one game to another was impossible to ignore. And that fact, more than the loss, was the most important thing to happen to the Russians on Saturday.
The crowd that Datsyuk said fueled his level of energy and mobility was so inspirational, in part, because of Datsyuk.
In a scoreless game at 9:15 of the second period, he took a stretch pass from Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov to knife into the American zone, split the defense and scored with a quick shot that just missed the glove of U.S. goaltender Jonathan Quick and tucked itself inside the far post.
It further electrified an already electric crowd.
Datsyuk's second goal of the game was Russia's first power play goal of the tournament, a shot from the top of the right circle that beat Quick between his legs at 12:44 of the third period that tied the game 2-2, once again giving a jolt to what had become a somewhat nervous crowd.
Datsyuk was denied by Quick when he was tabbed by Zinetula Bilyaletdinov in the first round of the shootout, but he scored when he was called upon again once it was still tied after three shooters. Datsyuk's influence could even be felt on a shootout goal by Ilya Kovalchuk, who lobbed one over Quick, a shot made famous by Datsyuk.
By the end, after T.J. Oshie and Quick combined to give the U.S. the win, Datsyuk had played 20:45, registered six shots on goal and won eight of his 14 faceoffs.
"It's one game," Datsyuk said. "We need to play at same level every time and we'll be OK. Keep going every game better and better."
Russia's ability to do just that rests heavily on Datsyuk's ability to play like he did Saturday, like he has for the majority of his 816-game NHL career.
"I'm OK," he said, before quickly correcting himself. "We, not me."
Except in this case the concepts of "we" and "me" are inextricably linked, because with Datsyuk looking healthy the Russians are as well.
Author: Arpon Basu | Managing Editor LNH.com