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|Datsyuk center of attention: Russian star puts injury out of mind
12.02.2014. Allen, Kevin. USA TODAY
Alex Ovechkin is like the Elvis of Russian hockey. He's flamboyant, charismatic and supremely talented. Russian people always seem fascinated by what Ovi says or does. Shake, baby, shake -- he's the king.
But this king does bow to another, and that's Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk.
Ovechkin is the face of the Russian team, but he sincerely goes out of his way to pay homage to Datsyuk. Ovechkin uses phrases such as "internationally acclaimed" and "highly respected" when speaking of Datsyuk. The reverence is evident in Ovechkin's voice.
Unquestionably, Ovechkin provides the fuel for the Russian squad, but it is Datsyuk who supplies the accelerant. Known as one of the league's slickest stick-handlers, Datsyuk is an offensive fire starter.
While the spotlight is clearly on Ovechkin to carry the team, banged-up Datsyuk might be one of the keys to this entire tournament.
"He's the Igor Larionov of today," said former NHL player Jeremy Roenick, now an NBC analyst. "He epitomizes professionalism, hard work, structure, leadership."
Datsyuk has a leg injury, and he practiced Tuesday and the Russians expect he will be ready to play their first game against Slovenia on Thursday.
He missed 14 games with the injury and then played the Detroit Red Wings' last two games. He averaged roughly 14 minutes a game, about six minutes less than his season average.
"Everything is fine," Datsyuk said. "My injury doesn't bother me at all."
Datsyuk clearly wants to play even more because the Games are in Russia. He said he has been waiting his "whole life" for this chance. This team will be among the most celebrated Russian athletes of this generation if they bring home a gold, and perhaps beat the Americans along the way. Remember what happened in 1980 in Lake Placid? Older Russians probably have forgotten.
But will Datsyuk be playing at 100% efficiency? How much magic can he show in Sochi? We know there will be rust on his game, but no one knows yet to what degree.
"He is one of the best players in the world on both sides of the puck," Roenick said. "If he can't play, or play at his best, then it severely hurts Russia."
As Red Wings general manager Ken Holland once said, Datsyuk has the ability to beat the same defender three times on the same play.
If Datsyuk functions at a high level, then the Russians have the one-two center combination of Evgeni Malkin-Datsyuk that matches up favorably with any country in the tournament. When you add in wingers Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk to Malkin and Datsyuk, you have an offense capable of ringing up memorable numbers.
That's a group capable of scoring four or five goals against any team in the tournament. There's a fear factor of 10 attached to that top six. Every team owns an impressive group of forwards, but these six Russians have the potential to be the most memorable Showtime offense since Magic Johnson was driving the Los Angeles Lakers' bus in the 1980s.
Take Datsyuk out of the equation, and you start to wonder whether the wingers will get the puck often enough. Malkin is a superstar center, but what makes the Russians special is that they boast two superstar No.1 centers.
Nobody is tuning in to watch the Russians play defense. That's why Datsyuk might be the most important player in this tournament.