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Russian forwards hope to make beautiful music

by John Dellapina /
VANCOUVER -- There were two lightning strikes from Alex Ovechkin -- one off a piece of grand larceny by Alexander Semin and an instinctive sense for where his Washington Capitals teammate had parked the getaway car.

There were a couple of flashes of power, speed and dazzling skill -- and a goal and an assist each -- from Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. For those scoring at home, Kovalchuk is the one wearing jersey No. 71 (Malkin's Penguins number), while Malkin is sporting No. 11.

In truth, though, the beautiful music the top two Russian lines are supposed to make during these Vancouver Olympics only came in short bursts Tuesday in Russia's 8-2 thrashing of Latvia at Canada Hockey Place.

Yes, this only was the overture, in which you get just a sampling of the full pieces the orchestra later will play. But the rollicking, team gear-clad crowd that packed the place and chanted for both teams throughout despite the late night faceoff time also witnessed a lot of what looked like instrument tuning.

Pavel Datsyuk, the great-at-everything wizard from the Detroit Red Wings who was given the enviable/formidable assignment of centering Ovechkin and Semin, spent much of the night looking just as you'd expect someone who is used to playing in the NHL in a structured system but is playing here with two structure-scoffing wingers.

"Time will show how easy or hard it's going to be," Datsyuk said before the game. "But I know my job always, whether I play for the Red Wings or whether I play for the Russian national team. With these guys, I'm going to be more focused on defense so these guys can do everything they want to do on the offensive."

Datsyuk played on the same line as Ovechkin with Moscow Dynamo during the 2004-05 work stoppage. They won the league title that year. But Ovechkin was not yet the fully formed NHL superstar he is now. Besides, that was five years ago now.

"It was an excellent year," Datsyuk said. "We did a good job and had lots of fun. Won the championship. But that's a long time ago and nobody remembers."

Whether Kovalchuk remembers what it is like to play with a fellow superstar also is open to question. Since Marc Savard and Marian Hossa left the Atlanta Thrashers in 2006 and 2008, respectively -- and until being traded himself to New Jersey two weeks ago -- Kovalchuk had been a one-man show.

Tuesday night, he appeared to be looking for Malkin more often than looking for his own shot. Malkin, who is quite well-versed in the nuanced art of playing with a fellow megastar -- a guy named Crosby -- also was more deferential than usual.

In contrast, the Russians' third and fourth lines, which are comprised entirely of KHL players -- each, in fact, with two club teammates on it -- appeared the far more comfortable units in the triumph against Latvia. In particular, Sergei Fedorov was his old, do-everything self alongside wingers Danis Zaripov and Alexander Radulov.

Of course, the opponent Tuesday was far closer to KHL caliber than NHL All-Star level.

The Russians step up in class Thursday, when they take on Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara and Slovakia. The competition gets even stiffer when Russia faces the Czech Republic on Rivalry Sunday, Feb. 21.

For those games -- and certainly the medal round games next week -- the Russian superstars will have to more consistently strike the right chords.

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