KAZAN, Saturday: for the first time this season the “house full” signs go up at the Tatneft Arena as fans in this hockey-crazy city scramble for a chance to see Evgeny Malkin in action. With Ak Bars opting not to risk disrupting its roster by investing in locked-out NHL men, the visit of Metallurg Magnitogorsk takes on extra significance for the locals. Malkin, along with Nikolai Kulemin and Sergei Gonchar, add extra spice to the Ak Bars – Magnitka rivalry.
There’s no doubt about who is the man of the moment: even home coach Valery Belov admits that Malkin’s involvement “raised the whole status of the game today”. The forward is cheered warmly by both sets of fans when his name is announced, but that’s the end of the welcome as far as Ak Bars is concerned. On the contrary, the illustrious forward’s tussles with popular defenseman Ilya Nikulin draw great ovations every time the stopper comes out on top. And glee mingles with relief when Malkin fluffs his lines in the post-game shoot-out, firing wide of Konstantin Barulin’s goal.
That miss, and Alexei Morozov’s successful conversion at the other end, left Malkin waiting for his first KHL win for a few more days, until he produced three assists in a 7-2 triumph at Neftekhimik. And it also impressed upon the Pittsburgh Penguins man just how strong the KHL is at present. “It’s difficult to compare different competitions, but in the end it doesn’t matter who is from the NHL and who isn’t. These are all real players. Look at the Ak Bars roster: you’ve got Ilya Nikulin, Alexei Morozov, Alexei Tereshchenko and Danis Zaripov – they’ve all won the World Championship and so has Kostya Barulin. Of course it’s hard to play against a team at that level.”
Meanwhile, with reports swirling around about KHL clubs approaching the likes of Chris Tavares and Patrick Kane, Magnitka head coach Paul Maurice gives a thumbs-up to the KHL experience and recommends it to any North American player considering a switch across the ocean. “It’s been great for me,” he said. “It’s a different kind of hockey – there’s more time on the puck – and there are lots of positives. Players get the opportunity to expand their game, to learn to do more on the ice. It’s a great hockey experience.”
MOSCOW, Sunday: The Luzhniki arena has hosted its share of hockey legends – from the Summit Series clashes to the Dynamo class of 1990 which finally ended decades of CSKA hegemony of the Soviet game. But rarely has there been an individual match-up as widely anticipated as Alexander Ovechkin vs Ilya Kovalchuk. Ovi vs Kovi was a big enough draw to get even the notoriously hard-to-please Moscow public streaming to the arena; despite the players’ pleas to the contrary, Dynamo vs SKA was a secondary attraction.
Ovi, of course, had already made his second Dynamo debut, contributing an assist in a 7-2 thrashing of Dinamo Minsk. For Kovi, it’s his first serious game since the Devils lost out to LA Kings in the Stanley Cup final. With the two players on different lines, fans have to wait for a head-to-head match-up, but the pair provide plenty of talking points in the first period as Kovalchuk’s assist helps SKA take the lead before Ovechkin has the crowd singing his name with his first KHL goal.
In the end it’s Kovalchuk who leaves the win under his belt – 3-1, despite missing a one-on-one in the second period – and he left the arena to have dinner with his illustrious opponent. Before that, though, both players spoke of the prospects of seeing more big names join them in the KHL this season. “We keep hearing news from the NHL, but we’re all professionals and we’ve come here to play, not just to make up the numbers,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s a great thing for our fans, who can see the top Russian players back in Russia. And God willing we’ll even see some top-class foreigners joining us here. It will be a very interesting championship.”
Ovechkin, meanwhile, was also confident that more players would be getting their skates on to join the KHL if the lock-out continued – and was paying particular attention to his Swedish colleagues at Washington Capitals, who are currently barred from playing in their home country. Looking further afield, he believes most players simply want to play hockey. “The Canadians are curious about the atmosphere in the Russian game, and of course nobody wants to miss a whole season lazing around in Miami and playing golf,” he said.
Datsyuk denied debut goal
MOSCOW, Monday: Pavel Datsyuk’s debut sees CSKA leave its historic home behind for the evening and switch to the impressive Megasport Arena. The game against Avangard Omsk isn’t a sell-out, but the Datsyuk effect ensures a bigger crowd than could have fit into the Leningradsky Prospekt arena. He enjoyed a winning debut, 1-0, but was left miffed by a refereeing decision which denied him a headed goal after his initial shot was deflected into the air.
“I don’t get why it was ruled out,” he complained after the game. “I didn’t kick it with my skate or push it with my hand. I’d always dreamed of scoring a header – today I got one, but it didn’t count.” Datsyuk’s comments echo other remarks about the officials in the KHL, where the relationship between players and referees isn’t always the same as in North America, but apart from that he felt his debut had been better than expected.
“The first game always brings a lot of responsibility and high expectations,” he said. “I thought it would be harder for me, but the team gave me a lot of support after a long break from the game.” And, after a long break from hockey in Russia – Datsyuk’s last games here came for Dynamo in the previous lock-out – he was impressed with the fast pace of the on-ice action but added that he needed more than one game to comment on the overall quality of the league.