The pressure on Russia’s men’s hockey team in Sochi is going to be incredible.
And the pressure its captain is placing on himself to return from injury is likely just as high.
Pavel Datsyuk has not been himself lately. He missed 14 games with the Detroit Red Wings with what’s believed to be a significant groin (or perhaps even knee) injury, sitting out since the Winter Classic right up until Thursday’s game against the Florida Panthers.
His last two games with the Wings, he skated on the wing with Darren Helm and Daniel Alfredsson and played limited minutes by his standards: 13:34 against the Panthers and then 14:46 against the Tampa Bay Lightning two nights later.
Prior to that point, his season average had been 21:08, ninth among all NHL forwards, and he was a centre.
“I didn’t play in one month, and it’s a little bit easier playing at wing,” Datsyuk explained of why he asked Wings coach Mike Babcock for the position switch.
Russia’s first game in Sochi is only three days away, on Thursday afternoon against Slovenia, and as it’s been for Detroit the past few weeks, Datsyuk’s health is going to be a key storyline heading in.
Russian head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov even admitted on the weekend that it’s possible Datsyuk can’t play at all, depending on how their evaluations of him go.
“When Datsyuk arrives, we will talk and make a decision,” Bilyaletdinov told R-Sport, the official host news agency for the Games, on Sunday. “[Monday] is only the 10th and everything is possible.”
Earlier in the week, Babcock – who is also the rival Canadian team’s coach – had said he hoped Datsyuk wasn’t pushing himself to return too quickly in order to play in the Olympics, something that has been a fear for a lot of NHL teams in the past few weeks.
“I just hope we’re doing the right thing,” Babcock said prior to the Panthers game. “I hope we’re not bringing him back just because it’s the Olympics. I hope he’s actually ready. We’re going to find out. One thing about getting back on the ice, you can’t hide out there.”
After weeks of being asked the same questions, Datsyuk is sensitive to the idea he was putting Olympic participation in front of his role with the Wings, who have struggled over the last month without him.
“I’ve been focused on coming back as soon as possible and help team,” he said quietly.
As for what it was like getting back on the ice, Datsyuk offered a humorous take on how difficult it was after so much time away.
“Ah, I felt it was like everybody was fast, I was so small, goalie so big, net so small,” he said. “I hope that everybody slows down and I’ll [need to] be careful with my age.”
Datsyuk may be 35, but he’s clearly an integral part of Russia’s medal hopes in Sochi. The way the team was selected, with heavy KHL representation, it will lean on Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Vladimir Tarasenko to produce offence and play huge minutes.
Russia may not be as deep as teams like Canada, but it has two strong, young goaltenders in Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov and that high end talent up front is pretty impressive. Where they’re thin is on the blueline and in forward depth, which means their path to victory will be through either outscoring teams and/or relying on Bilyaletdinov’s defensive system that gained some attention with a win at the 2012 worlds.
Losing Datsyuk – or only having him at half speed – would obviously be an enormous blow, bigger than Canada losing Steve Stamkos given the quality of the potential replacement in the lineup.
Every indication so far is Datsyuk will try to play through the injury, perhaps taking some inspiration from former Wings captain Steve Yzerman, as per this anecdote from Elliotte Friedman.
Playing at a home Games has considerable pull, something that was especially apparent in Tampa on Friday afternoon. Datsyuk skated in practice with the Wings and then came off the ice immediately to watch some of the opening ceremony on a satellite feed of TSN in the dressing room.
He was clearly moved by the spectacle going on in Sochi, which included one of his idols, Vladislav Tretiak, lighting the torch at the end.
“It was unbelievable and beautiful,” Datsyuk said. “I’m happy. They did a good job.”
“It’s in his country, he wants to play bad, but he’s a smart guy,” Babcock said. “He isn’t going to jeopardize his career over something like this. Makes no sense. So we’ve got to trust him. Same way it happens all the time. You trust them. In the end they make the decision. That’s what injured players do.”