Russian medal relies on Ovie-Malkin alchemy

Russia forward Alexander Ovechkin, left, keeps the puck from Sovenia defenseman Matic Podlipnik in the first period of a men's ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

As the Great Search for Sidney’s Sidekick proves, chemistry can be elusive at the Olympics. But while everyone rooting for the red-and-white wonders what it will take for a winger to click with Crosby, two players with strong NHL ties to Canada’s captain continue to search for some synchronicity of their own—and the hopes of the host nation are largely dependent on them finding it.

Since scoring all five of their combined points in their first game against Slovenia, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin have yet to look anything like their terrifying selves at the 2014 Sochi Games. So far, their lack of production hasn’t been a huge deal, as Russia dusted off an overmatched Norwegian team on Tuesday to punch its ticket to the quarter-final round. But with all the soft touches in the tournament officially behind them, the Russians can’t expect to beat three more good teams with only one line producing.

The trio of Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov has been Russia’s best. In the nail-biting 3-2 shootout loss to the United States, Datsyuk popped both goals. In the must-win qualification game versus Norway, Radulov got his team on the board after a scoreless and somewhat nervous first period, while Kovalchuk got the critical second goal to eliminate the possibility of a fluke Norwegian tally tying the contest.

Ovechkin’s most noticeable contribution against Norway was a botched breakaway attempt in the third period that ended with him sliding into the corner and asking the referee for a penalty that (correctly) wasn’t called. Malkin set his linemate up for that scoring chance, but was otherwise equally invisible.

Put plainly: That just won’t cut it in the upcoming knockout game versus Finland. The battered Finns are certain to sit back, protect Tuukka Rask’s net and try to win a low-scoring affair. It’s a game plan that stands a strong chance of succeeding if Datsyuk’s unit is the only one consistently creating chaos for Team Russia.

The inability of Malkin and Ovechkin to truly engage is a little reminiscent of what Crosby endured on home ice in 2010, when—just as is the case in Sochi—Canada’s best player couldn’t seem to fully jive with his wingers. Malkin, of course, is Crosby’s teammate with the Pittsburgh Penguins, while the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry has been one of the NHL’s biggest publicity coups since both players broke into the league together in 2005-06. The Vancouver Olympics famously ended with Crosby on top of the world and the same possibility remains for Malkin or Ovechkin to notch a timely goal on home soil as the tournament stakes continue to climb.

And it’s not like they need much daylight to make a difference. Ovechkin is equipped with the best release in hockey, while Malkin, when he’s charged up and tracking the puck in all zones, is like Datsyuk with size. But right now, Ovie’s stick is silent and Malkin isn’t moving with any authority. So far, the Russians have been able to compensate for the lack of offence from two of the world’s best players—but as of Wednesday, that margin of error is gone.

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