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The NHL's Russian Slump

By November 24, 2010

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Kovalchuk

With the NHL schedule entering its second quarter, all hands are taking stock of notable stories and trends in a still-young hockey season.

The biggest story so far? Most agree its Steven Stamkos and his almost Gretzky-esque scoring pace in Tampa Bay.

Or the long-awaited and agonized-over Carey Price breakthrough in Montreal.

As for surprises, most of us didn't expect the last week of November to begin with Phoenix and Columbus holding down two of the top four spots in the West.

For unexpected calamity, the Devils' plunging hopes are the obvious pick. There are also issues in Chicago, Pittsburgh and San Jose, where great expectations are proving hard to meet.

But the oddest trend so far is the Russian Slump, led by a pair of dazzling stars who should be tearing up the league.

It's like the NHL's entire Russian contingent is suffering a collective hangover from February's crushing loss at the Winter Olympics.

Washington's Alex Ovechkin, scoring dynamo and blogger man-crush, is on pace for fewer than 40 goals this season.

That would be a banner year for most, but a dud season by Ovechkin's celestial standards. And folks are starting to take notice.

As is usually the case with a slumping superstar, the spotty performance has prompted questions about his attitude, leadership, and off-ice demeanor - the kind of stuff nobody takes notice of when you're on a hot streak.

But it will take a scoring drought of spectacular proportions for Ovechkin to catch his pal and countryman Ilya Kovalchuk in the race for NHL Bust of the Year.

Kovalchuk's dismal numbers and embarrassing moments, within the context of his mind-bending contract and New Jersey's dreadful record... it's a combination almost too bad to be true.

Another Russian thoroughbred, Evgeni Malkin, is finally heating up in Pittsburgh. But he's nowhere near the league scoring leaders, and his point-per-game production is well off his usual pace.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Alex Semin is outscoring Ovechkin. (As of Wednesday, the two Capitals were the only Russians among the top 20 scorers.)

But Semin's hot-and-cold act suggests he might be the next Alex Kovalev: sublimely skilled; maddeningly unreliable.

Sergei Gonchar's unsightly minus-12 is among the worst in the league, not what the Ottawa Senators had in mind when they opened the vault for a marquee defenseman. Another star defender, Montreal's Andrei Markov is out with a knee injury (again), leaving the Russian NHL defense corps very thin.

And what of those other names that had NHL Draft-niks all hot and bothered in recent years?

Would-be scoring demons like Alex Frolov and Nik Zherdev look like ordinary (or less-than-ordinary) NHL forwards. Wunderkind Nikita Filatov is off to another false start.

The downward trend can't possibly last, not with the skill level Russia brings to the sport.

A couple of good games might be all Ovechkin needs to rev up for a torrid second half and playoff run. October-November is ancient history when the playoffs begin. Even Kovalchuk has time to salvage his season.

But right now, Russia's hockey federation must be grateful this isn't another Olympic year.

If the Games began today, Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky would be a nice goaltending tandem. The ever-reliable Pavel Datsyuk might make a case for best all-around player in the game.

The rest of them look like they're still reeling from last winter's shellacking in Vancouver.

(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Comments

December 2, 2010 at 8:47 am
(1) Sandi says:

On the other hand, we do have Alexander Semin…..

He’s going great guns!

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