The 2019 IIHC World Championship is well underway in Slovakia, and since the tournament’s start, the Russian team has been bombarded with the question: “Can Malkin and Ovechkin play on the same line?”
“I don’t say that I’m categorically against playing with Malkin”, Alexander laughed when he answered, soon after joining Russian’s National Team for this year’s tournament.
In a game against Austria on May 12, the Russian duo came out together for a 4-on-4 situation – and the journalists again asked Ovechkin for an explanation. He replied, “Zhenya agreed to play with me.”
In a game against Sweden on May 21, Malkin passed the puck to Ovechkin who scored. Russian Head Coach, Ilya Vorobiov, was asked about it and answered, “Ovechkin and Malkin happened to be together on the ice.”
Alex Ovechkin has risen! He makes it 3:1 Russia. Khafizulin with a nice stretch pass and Malkin with an amazing pass. #IIHFWorlds #ALLCAPS #LetsGoPens https://twitter.com/A_Kalnins/status/1130915893729480705/video/1
— Aivis Kalniņš (@A_Kalnins) May 21, 2019
The topic of Ovechkin and Malkin’s ice time together has had a long and difficult history. Malkin had hinted about that even before the start of the World Cup, “Our team has not been successful with Ovechkin and I on the same line. It’s somehow stupid to try that again.”
Here is a brief retelling of this story. The following is a translation of an original article by Nikita Petukhov for Sports.ru, which reviewed the origin of the myth, that Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin can’t play together. And a spoiler alert, it’s not all that bad.
Why does this topic interest everyone?
Besides the fact that Ovechkin and Malkin are two of the main stars for Russia during the last ten years, they are also about the same age. Ovechkin was born in 1985, while Malkin was born in 1986. Therefore, their careers are in parallel.
As forwards, they were together on the youth team and then on the junior team. They came into the NHL around the same time [Difference of one year] and quickly became superstars there. They had no special reason to ignore being selected to the national team, so while their clubs were not going deep in the playoffs, Ovechkin and Malkin came to compete in the world championships.
They played together at the Olympics in Turin and were even roommates. Since 2005, they played everywhere together, except in 2008, when Malkin did not come to the World Championships, since he was involved in the Stanley Cup Final with Pittsburgh.
Malkin and Ovechkin have so much in common that they are imprinted in the collective memory of fans, experts and journalists as something whole – and this will continue until one of them is finished with hockey.
Malkin and Ovechkin – best friends?
Here it is more difficult. Having played together on all possible Russian national teams and having roomed in Turin-2006, they began their long North American careers and there were different issues.
For example, in 2007 it was rumored that Ovechkin ran into Gennady Ushakov, Malkin’s agent, in a nightclub and punched him (for some reason this was clarified separately) with his fist. Already in 2017, Malkin said that there was a conflict with Ovechkin – and that another Russian superstar helped them resolve their quarrel, “Yes, we had differences due to third parties. But at the All-Star Game [in Montreal in 2019], when we went to a restaurant for dinner together, Ilya Kovalchuk helped reconcile us. Ovechkin and I talked like men and forgot everything.”
This story was pedaled against the background of constant clashes and poking during games. At the end of the 2000’s and the beginning of the 2010’s, the rivalry between Washington and Pittsburgh was an important story for the NHL, and the Russian stars were the main characters. Naturally, any physical contact was considered frame by frame.
The most powerful hit happened in January of 2009 when Ovechkin accelerated and caught Malkin on the oncoming traffic. Malkin broke off and went to avenge. In North America, they really wanted to cling to this incident, but it didn’t work out — as the most famous collaboration between Malkin and Ovechkin in the NHL still remains the skills contest highlight when Ovechkin did the breakaway challenge that was part of the All-Star Game festivities, which was ten days after their fight in the game.
Ten years have passed since then, and there were no extraordinary incidents between the two stars on the ice, but the two did not have a particularly warm relationship outside the ice.
Have they ever played together?
In fact, many times. Here we consider the magic of Gusev – Kucherov together. If we take into account only the experience of playing together, then Ovechkin and Malkin should play even more. They came out together at YUCHM-2003 in Yaroslavl: when Ovechkin got a goal, with an assist from Malkin – the whole event, and for the first time in the national team form they performed it on April 14, 2003, in a match with Switzerland. The line combination of Ovechkin – Malkin – Shitikov were together for all games, including the bronze medal game with the Americans.
There are no reports on the lines for the MFM-2004, but Ovechkin scored against the Swedes on a pass from Malkin. In MFM-2005, they were on different lines, but made the score sheet together on a goal against the Belarusians.
At the 2005 World Championships in Vienna, the fourth line of the national team looked like this: Ovechkin – Malkin – Afinogenov. In three games, Afinogenov and Ovechkin were teamed up on the same line with Fedorov, and in the semifinals against the Canadians, they even made the scoresheet on the same goal (Ovechkin scoring from Malkin’s pass), but returned to the original line combination for the match for bronze.
In the Olympic Games in Turin, Malkin and Ovechkin, also started in the line with Maxim Afinogenov, but they were moved in the second game: Malkin was on a line with Russian Super League players, Kharitonov and Sushinsky, while Ovechkin was placed with Yashin and Kozlov. Both played great: Ovi in the role of scorer and Malkin, as an elite two-way center.
The 2006 World Cup was entirely held in the youth troika with Kulemin. At the 2007 World Cup, the national team was coached by the Bykov – and he took over the Krikunovo venture with division: Malkin played with Kovalchuk, and Ovechkin generally played on the fourth line. (Bykov and Zakharkin thought it would be better this way).
In the Olympic Games in Vancouver 2010, Ovechkin and Semin started on the same line with Datsyuk, but from the third game to the end of the tournament they played with Malkin and presented the national team with perhaps the most epic moment of those Olympics.
And now they fit together?
Most likely, the correct answer is that both Malkin and Ovechkin can find linemates who are better suited. The main problem is that they are both accustomed to being the dominate player on the line; i.e. to be the center of decision making and the main generator of danger. Ovechkin was better suited to have Backstrom, who can defer to him. Malkin, meanwhile, is suited to be the best on the line, regardless of who his linemates are. The main thing is that they [his linemates] do not interfere and do not take the initiative towards themselves – for example, like the modern Dadonov. So, putting them on different lines makes perfect sense.
But it makes no sense to be afraid to put them together on one line and see what will happen, as Ilya Vorobyev is doing at this World Championship.
So why is it considered that they should not go out on same line?
Because there was the Olympics in Sochi and the coaching style of Zinetuly Bilyaletdinov. We started the tournament with a line of Ovechkin – Malkin – Semin – and at the very start it seemed like an extravaganza. Ovechkin scored against the Slovenes in the very first shift.
But then came nothing. No goals against the United States. No goals against Slovakia. Alexander Popov, Bilyaletdinov’s favorite, was already playing with the Norwegians in the top 8/11. The superline didn’t work, experts said that they needed to change something, but Bilyaletdinov stood his ground – after the tournament he explained that he believed and waited for them to shoot.
The shots did not happen: the Russian national team lost to Finland at home. Immediately after the game, Head Coach Bilyaletdinov admitted that he did not know why Ovechkin scored only one goal. Since then, the whole sports country remembers that two hockey superheroes who have several dozen games on the same line for different teams should not play together.
The situation in general is not that Malkin and Ovechkin should not play together. It was the coaches who should not wait until the situation is desperate before looking for new options; but the memory remains, of course, the simplest.
In 2019, it’s probably not a diagnosis, but a meme, a stereotype, the memory of how hockey once made the whole country hurt.
By Diane Doyle