SOCHI, Russia — Most units of measurement and finance at the Winter Olympics require conversion or translation — centimeters into inches, kilograms into pounds, rubles into dollars or Euros or yen. But time is measured the same way pretty much everywhere, and as the first few shifts came and went in the second period of the Russia men’s hockey game against Norway on Tuesday afternoon, the Russians were coming against the 100-minute mark since they had last scored a goal. It felt like a long time, in any language.
The players were showing frustration; on the ice, Alex Ovechkin could be seen muttering under his breath (in Russian, one would assume). In the stands, the 11,423 at the Bolshoy Ice Dome had gone from sing-chanting “Shaybu! Shaybu!” (“Score! Score!”) to scream-demanding it.
But finally, with a couple of second-period goals, the Russians gave themselves some relief, and with a couple of soft goals in the waning seconds they gave themselves a prettier margin of victory. And still, the 4-0 victory, while sufficient for the purpose of advancement, did not completely assuage concerns over their problems on offense.
“We try different combination. We try different plays,” said Russian defenseman Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens. “But the puck doesn’t go [in the net]. Hopefully it’s going to start [Wednesday] . . . We’re probably going to adjust something. We have to be better tomorrow.”
Tuesday’s game was the first phase of the Russians’ grand plan to conquer Scandinavia this week on its way to the gold medal game, as the win over Norway moves them into a quarterfinal matchup with Finland on Wednesday, with a probable date against Sweden in the semis should they beat the Finns.
That grand plan, however, did not include a scoreless and at times lifeless first period against the Norwegians, who were seeded 12th out of the tournament’s 12 teams and playing without their only NHL player, Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers, who has a hand injury. By the time the second period got underway, Russia’s non-shootout scoreless drought had reached 97 minutes 16 seconds, and Russian journalists were going to Google Translate to find out how to say “Miracle on Ice” in Norwegian (“Mirakel pa Isen”).
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The grand plan also didn’t include an 0-for-3 showing on the power play for the day, bringing Russia’s output to a dismal 2 for 16 for the tournament with the man advantage.
Clearly, Russia badly needed somebody to ignite its offense, and there were no lack of potential candidates — including Ovechkin, a three-time NHL most valuable player, two-time NHL points leader Evgeni Malkin and four-time NHL all-star Pavel Datsyuk.
But on this night, it was Alexander Radulov, a former Nashville Predator who now plays for CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League, who saved Russia from possible ignominy, and at the same time returned himself to the good graces of the Russian hockey world.
Radulov, who is both the all-time leading scorer in the KHL and a polarizing figure who just last year was stripped of his captaincy by CSKA Moscow, broke the Russians’ scoring drought a little more than four minutes into Tuesday’s second period — by which time it had reached 101 minutes 28 seconds — when he circled behind Norway’s net and banked in a shot off a Norwegian defender’s skate.
About 13 minutes later, Radulov hit the left post with a backhander, but the puck caromed to Ilya Kovalchuk — another former NHL star now playing in the KHL — who scored into an almost empty net. And late in the third period, Radulov added an empty-netter to give Russia a 3-0 lead and himself a three-point night.
Radulov, some may recall, was the goat of the Russians’ 3-2 loss to the United States in Saturday’s epic overtime duel, as he was in the penalty box for both of the Americans’ regulation goals. Things were bad enough for him that when Russian Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov was asked following that game whether Radulov should be scratched for the next game, the coach replied, “Yes . . . among other things.”
But he never did scratch Radulov — who even got the honor of taking one of Russia’s shootout tries (he scored) in its 1-0 win over Slovakia on Sunday — and by Tuesday evening, Bilyaletdinov was gushing, “He was dynamic, and he was effective, and he got better throughout the game.”
The same could not be said, however, of Ovechkin, who entered the tournament as the NHL’s leading goal scorer — not to mention as the unofficial Face of the Sochi Games — but who, since posting a goal and an assist on his first two shifts of the tournament, has not been heard from on the scoring sheet.
“Most important thing right now is win,” Ovechkin said when asked about his own struggles to score. “It’s not about personal stats. It’s not about goal-scoring lead. We here to win the gold, not [to] win some scoring titles and all that kind of stuff.”
Though often shadowed by an opposing defender — and though Malkin, who centers his line, hasn’t always shown enough awareness for when, or how, to get the puck to his stick — Ovechkin still leads Russia in shots on goal (21), and he has had numerous scoring chances in all four of its games thus far.
But at this point, it would make the Russians’ lives much easier — and give their plotted conquest of Scandinavia a much better chance of succeeding — if the best goal scorer on the planet started putting the goal in the net, and soon.