SOCHI, Russia — The best player on the ice Saturday was not the American hero, T.J. Oshie, the guy who kept going and going and going until he finally finished off the Russians in the eight-round shootout. It was not American goaltender Jonathan Quick, the backbone of the epic 3-2 win. It wasn’t an American at all.
It was Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk, the 35-year-old with the bad left knee, who poured out his skill and heart for his country as the fans chanted and the flags waved and Vladimir Putin peered down from above. He scored both of Russia’s goals. He danced through defenders, whipped passes, cleared pucks, killed penalties, led. And after going 1-for-3 in the shootout, he took the loss hard.
“Right now I am still very emotional,” Datsyuk told reporters in Russian. “We have not had a chance to think things over yet. Of course we are not happy with the result of the game. But we played well today. We were a team. That’s good.”
Told the game deserved a tie, Datsyuk was not consoled.
“Maybe so,” he said, “but we just wanted to win so, so bad.”
The Russians could have chosen someone else to be captain. Maybe Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals superstar, who had declared he would play in Sochi whether the NHL participated in the Olympics or not, whose gap-toothed smile shines on Coca-Cola ads everywhere from the airport to the athletes’ dining hall. Maybe Ilya Kovalchuk, who had “retired” from the New Jersey Devils to come home and play in the Kontinental Hockey League.
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But they chose Datsyuk, who went from sixth-round draft pick to top two-way player with the Detroit Red Wings. His vision, hands and creativity with the puck are so impressive he is known as the “Magician,” but he works so hard and is so sneaky without the puck he has won the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward multiple times. He is an Olympic medalist and Stanley Cup champion. He also has a quick wit, even in limited English, and a deep love of the motherland.
So much North American media attention focused on Ovechkin leading up to Sochi. Could he carry Russia to gold? Could he handle the pressure? But the day the team was named, Ovechkin deferred to Datsyuk. “I think Datsyuk going to be captain,” he told the Washington Post. “To be honest with you, that type of player, he have respect on the ice and off the ice.”
This is Datsyuk’s team.
And so, after missing more than a month because of his knee, Datsyuk battled back to play two games for the Wings before the Olympic break and pretended everything was fine when he got to Sochi. “What injury?” he said in a press conference. He slogged his way through Russia’s Olympic opener, a 5-2 victory over Slovenia in which he had no shots in only 15:09 of ice time. “Pavel’s having a difficult time still,” said Russia coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov.
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He was ready for Saturday, when fans crammed the Bolshoy Ice Dome with Russian jerseys and even old Soviet ones. This was USA-Russia. This was a test. This was pride. He took a stretch pass midway through the second period and split two U.S. defenders – using his speed, knee be damned. With another on his back, he beat Quick glove side – off the right post and in – and gave Russia a 1-0 lead. The place rocked.
After the Americans took a 2-1 lead in the third, he tied it, whipping a shot from the right circle through a screen. He helped kill a penalty at the end of regulation, whacking the puck out of the zone. Early in overtime, he dumped in the puck and raced around Ryan Suter, the best U.S. defenseman. He got his stick on the puck and a shot on goal. What injury?
“I mean, that’s Pavel,” said Suter, who has faced him all too often in the NHL. “Just normal Pavel.”
[Photo gallery: U.S. outlasts Russia in epic Olympic shootout]
This game will be remembered for the buzz in the building, for how even and how hard-fought it was, for Alex Radulov’s two penalties that led to two U.S. power-play goals. It will be remembered for how Fedor Tyutin appeared to have scored the go-ahead goal for Russia late in the third period, only to have it disallowed because the net was off the moorings. Russian reporters cried conspiracy, because both referees were Canadian and let play continue for a long while before the puck went in. Some thought Quick cheated, because he had slid to his left into the post – and shoved it a little with his glove.
It will be remembered most, of course, for Oshie’s heroics, not to mention Quick’s.
But in the end, it was only a prelim, only an appetizer for the medal round, and the best news for Russia was that they played well as a team and their magician got his mojo back. Besides his two goals, their captain had six shots, second on the team to Ovechkin’s seven, and won 64 percent of his faceoffs in 20:45 of ice time. The Russians lost. But if they can stay at this level, if Datsyuk can be Datsyuk, look out.
“There’s a lot to look forward to,” Datsyuk said.