Still, there are the Russians. Not as many as there used to be. Not as young as they used to be. But there, pumping the Red Wings like a heartbeat.

Once, of course, there were five of them, and they were folklore. Five Russian players on one NHL team — on the same shift? Look at how they skate circles around everyone! They ranged in age from a Red Army soldier who was old before he defected, to a timid kid who scored more often than he shaved. Like Dumas’ Musketeers, they rode as one and carried a familiar moniker, the “ov” at the end of the name, Fetisov, Konstantinov, Larionov. Fedorov, Kozlov.

Now there are three left. And after gushing about a Russian Five, it hardly seems worth blubbering about a Russian Three.

Until you look at the numbers.

It is not an accident that the Red Wings’ surge during the last few weeks has matched a bulge in contribution by the remaining “ov” boys. Sure, the Wings acquired four new players on the day of the trading deadline and they haven’t lost since, eight wins and counting. But even before that, the Soviet engine had been on booster power.

Fedorov, for example, has been on a blitz, with points in the last 10 games, nine assists and six goals, and even his fans claim Sergei isn’t supposed to come alive until the playoffs.

Slava Kozlov, lately, has hit the strike zone more often than Roger Clemens, netting 14 goals in his last 20 games, one of the hottest sticks in hockey.

And Larionov, well, he is simply a joy to watch. He is the Red Wings’ version of Joe Dumars, a guy whose advancing age will always be dwarfed by his increasing smarts.

The 38-year-old center came back Wednesday, after two games away with the flu; he immediately made the opposing team ill. First he poked the puck to Fedorov, who fired it to Kozlov for a quick shot and score — three Russians, two assists, one goal. Then, one period later, Igor came down the ice, puck on his stick, head up, surveying the defense, then he shimmied the nugget between defenseman Bryan McCabe’s legs to a waiting Steve Yzerman, who put it high for the score.

“Nice pass,” Yzerman understated as he threw an arm around his elder statesman.

You get the feeling that, in another life, Larionov was that Yoda character from “Star Wars,” educating would-be warriors with a patient chuckle.

Extra effort evident everywhere

Now, this is not to suggest the Russian players are the sole tinder of the Red Wings’ latest blaze. The new guys, particularly Wendel Clark with pesky offense and Chris Chelios with effusive defense, have been instrumental.

And, it’s true, what’s happening with the Wings is, by definition, bigger than any trio of players. You saw it Wednesday at the Joe, in an inspired six-minute stretch when the Wings were shorthanded — part of it down two men
— and refused to surrender.

During one stretch, Brendan Shanahan did everything but undress Vancouver. He broke up a pass, he dropped to block a shot, he knocked the puck loose, broke up another pass, dropped again, bumped, pushed, stole the puck and chugged down the ice on a breakaway until he ran out of gas. (By the way, considering efforts like that, and his 31 goals and 26 assists this season, maybe all those trade-mongers owe him an apology.)

But behind the Shanahans, the Osgoods and of course, the aorta, Yzerman — who deserves his own sports section these days — there is still the Russian troika. Not five. Only three. Larionov. Fedorov. Kozlov.

The last of the “ov” boys.

“It is not the same as it used to be,” Larionov said afterward. “Before, we played as a unit, now we aren’t often together on the ice. But tonight, give us a bit of memories, yes?”

Adjustment without Fetisov

The saga of the Russian players in Detroit has been as complex and emotional as, well, a Russian novel. It featured youth and glory in its early chapters, and breathes with tragedy and age as it goes on. Vladimir Konstantinov, the fiercest soldier, no longer wages war, recovering from the terrible limo crash that robbed him of his hockey days. Slava Fetisov, the grizzled general, has hung up his sword, and wears a suit now as an assistant coach with another team. Larionov has toyed with winding it down. Fedorov has been a holdout, a robber baron, and finally a philanthropist, donating this year’s salary to charity.

And Kozlov? He keeps on doing what he does. He started the season in a walk and is ending it in a sprint.

“I think it was hard for all of them after Fetisov left,” said Barry Smith, the associate coach. “He was their big papa. He always stayed on everyone, making sure they all played hard. Kozzie looked up to him so much. And Igor played with him practically his whole life.

“It took awhile. But now, they’re all comfortable.”

And even if they are not a unit on the ice, certain things will always pull them together. Before the game, the “ov” boys were passing scores. Not of a hockey game. Of a soccer game. A Ukrainian team was on the cable TV. They watched as if keeping up with their alma mater.

When they were five, they carried a nickname. Now they are three and the names they carry are mostly their own. But they still represent a sniper, a wizard and a dazzler. Kozlov. Larionov. Fedorov.

Or, to quote Russian in a Volkswagen commercial, da, da, da.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com

Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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