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Russia says Kovalchuk OK; focuses on power play

by Arpon Basu

SOCHI -- Ilya Kovalchuk missed Russia's practice Monday, but coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov defused any fears that his star forward would miss the qualification round game against Norway on Tuesday.

"He's OK," Bilyaletdinov said after practice. "Just a rest."

Kovalchuk left his team's Group A game against Slovakia on Sunday with an apparent ankle injury midway through the second period, but returned for the start of the third and scored the clinching goal in the shootout in Russia's 1-0 win.

Ilya Kovalchuk missed practice Monday, but Russia coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said his star forward is expected to play Tuesday against Norway. (Photo: Getty Images)

Kovalchuk was fighting for a puck with Slovakia forward Richard Panik in the Russian zone when the two fell awkwardly to the ice. Kovalchuk appeared to be in tremendous pain as he writhed on the ice for a few moments, but he was able to get up and limp toward the Russian bench under his own power.

"I'm fine," Kovalchuk said after the game.

When asked Monday if it was indeed Kovalchuk's ankle that was hurt, Bilyaletdinov just repeated what he had said earlier.

"He's OK," he said.

Viktor Tikhonov, who was not in uniform for any of Russia's preliminary-round games, was skating in Kovalchuk's spot at practice with Pavel Datsyuk and Alexander Radulov.

Though Bilyaletdinov made a few minor changes to his lines at practice, the most significant difference was the makeup of his power-play units.

More accurately, it was a change in philosophy.

Bilyaletdinov had been using two balanced power-play units by using Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin on the second wave. But after the Russians were shut out on five attempts in the win against Slovakia, the players decided to talk to the coach.

"We know we have not scored in last two games, zero goals, and we need change," Malkin said, referring to the second power-play unit. "We talked to coach after game and we changed lines. Not bad [Monday] at practice, but we'll see what we have [Tuesday]. I hope it works."

Malkin took the spot of Radulov on the top unit, along with Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin, Andrei Markov and Tikhonov, who was taking the place of Kovalchuk. The five players spent at least 30 minutes working on the power play, with Bilyaletdinov and two of his assistants looking on as a third assistant, former NHL defenseman Dmitri Yushkevich, ran the drill.

Each of the four forwards on the power play were used in different positions, and different power-play systems were experimented with.

In the preliminary round the Russians often used a 1-3-1 formation on the power play, with Markov the quarterback on the top, two forwards at the top of each faceoff circle, one in the slot and one in front of the net.

The player in front on the top unit had been Radulov, but Monday at practice Ovechkin, Malkin and Tikhonov were all positioned there at times.

There were also a few times where there was a more traditional look with a man on each point.

Clearly, Russia is putting a lot of emphasis on its power play, which was widely seen as the team's biggest weapon coming in to the 2014 Sochi Olympics and has only produced two goals on 13 chances.

Bilyaletdinov would not commit to implementing the personnel change made to his top power play unit against Norway on Tuesday, but considering how much work Malkin put it there on Monday it would be surprising not see him at least get a chance.

"I can't say right now," Bilyaletdinov said. "We just tried to do something, we want to change something. But I'm not sure about this."

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