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May 14, 2012
For better and worse, players from the former Soviet bloc have been the focus of playoff drama. Are they playing to type, or just playing hockey?
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May 14, 2012

The Russian Question

For better and worse, players from the former Soviet bloc have been the focus of playoff drama. Are they playing to type, or just playing hockey?

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The W Hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., attracts the beautiful people, even ones with scruffy second-round-playoff beards. The Shade Lounge, poolside at the W, is precisely the kind of swank establishment you might expect Predators forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn to frequent if Nashville were in town. The trouble was that when they were there in the early morning of April 29—some 17 hours before the Predators were to play the Coyotes in Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinal—the other Nashville players were at a hotel in a different town, Glendale, 21 miles to the west. Snoring, presumably.

The soiree at the W—alcohol free, according to a source—was followed by an L for the Predators: The Coyotes dominated uncharacteristically sloppy Nashville 5--3 that night. Kostitsyn scored, but Radulov, other than an assist on a power-play goal, was noticeable only for his sloth. During the second intermission NBC Sports Network in-studio analyst Keith Jones, who customarily prepares highlight clips that range from 23 to 27 seconds, offered one minute and seven seconds of Radulov's hockey misdemeanors during the first two games of the series, a devastating show-and-tell that stripped the two-time MVP of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League and sold him for parts.

Then Radulov's evening really turned lousy.

Although one team official learned about 30 minutes before Game 2 that Radulov and Kostitsyn had broken the Predators' midnight curfew, he did not feel that it was the appropriate time to relay the news to coach Barry Trotz or general manager David Poile. Trotz learned of the indiscretion after his postgame press conference, when a reporter pulled him aside and mentioned that media members had spotted the two players out late the night before. When the Predators returned to the team hotel adjacent to Arena in Glendale, Trotz checked the security logs: Radulov and Kostitsyn indeed had returned around 1 a.m.

Radulov was summoned to a lobby restaurant, where Trotz was waiting, stiff in his white shirt and suit slacks. The tableau looked like a scene from The Godfather. They talked for 45 minutes. Two days later the Predators suspended the 25-year-old winger, their leading playoff scorer with six points, and Kostitsyn, a 27-year-old second-line wing. The players missed Game 3, an industrious 2--0 Nashville win, and then, because Trotz was not inclined to change a winning lineup, were scratched for Game 4 two nights later, when the Predators, lacking finish, lost 1--0. "It was a pretty easy decision," Poile said in announcing the suspension. "Our creed has always been to do the right thing." The moral high ground had a spectacular view of the abyss; down 3--1 in the series, the Predators faced elimination in Game 5 on Monday night.

For hockey's chattering classes—including some NHL executives—the Scottsdale episode represented a "Russian problem." Forget that while Radulov grew up in Nizhni Tagli, Kostitsyn is actually from Belarus. In the Russian Devolution all semblance of nuance is lost. Although it has been more than two decades since marquee players left a crumbling Soviet Union to play in the NHL, players from former bloc countries often are still tossed into the same pot of borscht. When former Flyers captain Mike Richards and teammate Jeff Carter—who helped the Kings into the Western Conference finals with a sweep of St. Louis—were exiled by Philadelphia last summer amid rumors of excessive partying, their story was never framed as an example of the shortcomings of Canadian players. But Russians (and fellow travelers) are not given the same benefit of individuality. They are, in the collective imagination of many in the league, me-first players who are shy on sacrifice and not fully committed to the idea of the Stanley Cup as the ultimate hockey prize.

"Their mentality is what it is," says Devils forward Patrik Elias, who is Czech. "A lot of the times they're being brought up to be individual players throughout their careers, because if you have the skills, you've got to show it.... And I think it's an adjustment for some of the guys to come here and build into that team system."

This was a confounding week for one-size-fits-all theorists. The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin was announced as a finalist for the Ted Lindsay Award as the NHL's most outstanding player. The Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk was named a finalist for his fourth Selke Trophy as the top defensive forward. Solid Los Angeles rookie defenseman Slava Voynov scored a goal. The Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk returned last Thursday from a one-game absence, because of what the team called a lower-body injury, and set up the overtime winner by Alexei Ponikarovsky, a Ukrainian, to cap a gritty three-point night in a 4--3 Game 3 win over the Flyers, who trailed the series 3--1 at week's end.

These were footnotes to the tale of the tardy Predators and the modest minutes that Capitals captain—and Moscow native—Alexander Ovechkin played on April 30 in a 3--2 victory over the Rangers in Game 2, a match in which he scored the winning goal. There was also speculation that the blinkered perception of Russians, reinforced by Radulov's example, might affect the status of Nail Yakupov, the likely No. 1 draft pick who plays junior hockey in Canada and is an ethnic Tatar. Terry Jones, a columnist for the Edmonton Sun, tweeted last week, "The way the Russians are going in Stanley Cup playoffs, Oilers better give a real, real, real, real good hard think about Nail Yakupov, huh?"

"Obviously you can't make a bold statement that all Russians are alike," an NHL executive of a nonplayoff team says. "[But] for all the character guys like [Canadiens defenseman Andrei] Markov and Datsyuk, you also can't ignore the 'Russian element.'"

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