Maybe you were listening to too many TV panel shows. You don't want to leave a scorer that wide open, regardless of where he's from.

It’s awful, I shouldn’t cheer a player based on what country he’s from (Olympic years aside) and I hate myself that I had to resort to this, but, boy am I happy that Ilya Kovalchuk had such a big game Thursday night in face of, yes, adversity.

Not only Russian, but Eastern European hockey players have been through somewhat of a smear campaign in the last couple of days (sorta) that was triggered by Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn staying up too late. The Star’s Damien Cox went through every possible way that you could pigeonhole a Russian to fit the ‘enigmatic’ narrative. Quite thorough, really:

Columbus got burned by Nikolai Zherdev and Nikita Filatov, or at least the Blue Jackets investment in those players did not yield substantial dividends. We all remember the Alexei Yashin soap opera in Ottawa and massive buy-out in Long Island. The KHL pilfered Radulov and is pushing hard to get other young Russians to stay home, using the NHL’s entry level contract structure against it. Washington’s 19-year-old blue-chip prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, reports say, has decided to stay with Chelyabinsk for two more years. There’s been chatter Winnipeg’s Alexander Burmistrov might be on the KHL’s radar. Alexander Ovechkin has gone from Washington superstar to headache, a player who declined to participate in the all-star game, and on Monday night played the lowest minutes he’s ever played for the Caps without being injured or kicked out of a game. New Jersey went out on a limb to sign Ilya Kovalchuk, and while he was a better player this season, he hasn’t come close to giving value for the dollars he has received. Oddly, the Devils were dominant Tuesday night without Kovalchuk in winning Game 2 against Philly.

When you pack it all in like that, it doesn’t look good. Regardless of Cox’s point (he did say that you can’t suggest “Canadian players are all head shot artists because Raffi Torres was suspended for 25 games”) it isn’t healthy to lump players from a certain nation together like this, with every possible negative strewn together, almost as if Columbus having difficulty with Nikolai Zherdev four years ago is related, somehow, to Andrei Kostitsyn staying up late and drinking.

Alexander Radulov, backchecking.

Even specific instances; Keith Jones hatchet job of Alexander Radulov, for example, because Jones never once noted that Radulov was leading his team in scoring. Now, was it Jones’ intention to make the debate rage online about the character of Russian players? Maybe not, but that’s what happened, in a way that you wouldn’t discuss Sidney Crosby in a debate about Joe Thornton’s backchecking abilities.

(Plus, what also bugs me about that sort of video analysis is that not all players look alike when making plays. What matters is whether there are more “positive” or “negative” touches made on the puck. A zone entry, a shot attempt, a completed pass, regardless of effort, those are all positive plays. When the bounces are going right for a player, a distant effort is viewed as “confidence”. When pucks are hopping over sticks or those inches to move the puck aren’t open, it’s because a player is being too “casual”. You could find ten three-second clips of any good player coasting like Radulov was in any given game.)

(The other thing is that Radulov’s play in Game 1 was largely positive and spent at the right end of the ice. Bad offence is sometimes forgotten for what it really is: good defence. When you have the puck in their zone, they don’t have the puck in your zone.)

Like Ovechkin, Radulov was leading his team in scoring in the playoffs. This doesn’t really matter in the long run, but just that facts as simple as these managed to escape Cox’s round-up of Russian transgressions even as a side-note just goes to show that we can often ignore the big picture. Radulov had an awful effort in Game 2, no doubt, but he was a force in his first six playoff games, being one third of the only Nashville line that was really driving the play forward.

When it was announced Kovalchuk had a herniated disc yet would be returning for Game 3, much of the material I was exposed to began to really mock the idea that Russians didn’t want it, or couldn’t play through pain. There was some good material, but it was our pal @SHorcov who really nailed it with a fabulous rant about player perception, and the few people who keep xenophobia alive. Reason prevailed, in the form of a parody Twitter feed:

 

 

 

 

 

Frankly, I don’t think too many people really believe anymore that Russians are disappearing acts come playoffs. It’s a topic that stirs a bit of debate on television panels, but I haven’t read a column in the last two days of some writer saying “oh, those commies don’t legitimately care about winning” because I don’t think any writer would be dumb enough to attach his name onto that thought. The genuine stuff is mostly anonymous and tucked away—it’s not too easy to find, but panel shows were keeping the conversation going, even if nobody disagreed with reason. I searched in vain for the xenophobic columns that Dmitry Chesnokov was referring to with this tweet. Perhaps he was referring to this. Or this.

Kovalchuk in Game 3, after everything that’s happened, was good to see. For once we’ll see a morning show deconstructing the positive plays, a play where all the bounces came together and the man looked confident and controlling, not casual. He ragged the puck for half a shift then made the pass that led to the goal from deep in the neutral zone.

It wasn’t just that play: Kovalchuk was a +12 Corsi without the benefit of any extra offensive zone starts, and went head-to-head against Danny Briere on several shifts. Count a game-high seven shot attempts among that, over 22 minutes of play, a goal and two assists.

Does this mean every Russian will be a guy who plays through pain, controls the tempo offensively and defensively and has a huge night production-wise in a close playoff game? No, it just means one did, on one night, and that’s in no way reflective of what will happen in Game 4. Perhaps Game 4 will be Briere’s day again, or maybe we’ll see a goaltending duel. You never know what can happen in one game, and it isn’t fair to any player to make wild judgments based on how they play for 20 or so minutes out of hundreds.

Comments (8)

  1. “it isn’t fair to any player to make wild judgments based on how they play for 20 or so minutes out of hundreds.”

    Even less so on a carefully chosen 10-second subset thereof.

    • Ur right. if those 10 seconds were the only contribution he made. He was “a guy who plays through pain, controls the tempo offensively and defensively and has a huge night production-wise in a close playoff game”

      obviously, you either didnt watch, or don’t like kovi. or dont like the devils. and since I’ve learned so much from damien cox, I’m gonna assume your dislikes are derived from xenophobic feelings towards the russians.

      there’s no place for stereotyping in sports.

  2. Damn you, Bourne, for making me read anything Damien Cox has written.

  3. Well said, Cam.

    It’s pieces like this that keep me coming back to Backhand Shelf over other sites.

  4. Clearly Bryzgalov didn’t care enough about winning to feel he had to make two saves on one play… commie.

  5. Its not fair to lump Keith Jones in with people who criticize because they’re Russian/Eastern European. He didn’t mention where Radulov was from in the video linked (maybe he did at other times, I don’t know) he just ripped him for lazy/bad play over the course of two games.

    • He ripped him for being bad in two games, but Radulov was only bad in one game. The bounces, etc: not going Radulov’s way were painted as laziness.

      • “Now, was it Jones’ intention to make the debate rage online about the character of Russian players?”

        Jones doesn’t bring up nationality though. Fair point that Radulov maybe didn’t deserve to be ripped for both games, but I don’t think its fair to assume Jones was going after him because of what country hers from.

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