Russia’s Ilya Kovalchuk misses practice to rest

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) - Ilya Kovalchuk was not on the ice for Russia’s final practice before the qualification round, and his coach insisted the superstar forward is not injured.

“He’s OK,” Russian hockey coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said Monday. “Just a rest.”

Kovalchuk missed the final minutes of the second period in Sunday’s win over Slovakia after appearing to hurt his right ankle.

Bilyaletdinov said, “he’s OK,” when asked if Kovalchuk has an ankle injury.

“He doesn’t have problem,” Bilyaletdinov said.

Kovalchuk returned in the preliminary-round game, scoring in a shootout to seal a much-needed victory for Russia against the Slovaks.

The fifth-seeded Russians will play 12th-seeded Norway on Tuesday, needing a win to advance to the quarterfinals on home ice for a matchup with fourth-seeded Finland.

Kovalchuk took his talents home to Russia last summer, walking away from $77 million and the 15-year contract he signed in 2010 with the New Jersey Devils. The 30-year-old Kovalchuk retired from the NHL to play for SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League.

“I’m really enjoying everything here,” Kovalchuk said in a telephone interview last month after playing in the KHL All-Star game. “It’s a great league. The game is different, but we are getting there. There are good players here for sure.”

In the NHL, Kovalchuk was great.

He had an NHL-high 388 goals and 765 points while playing for the Atlanta Thrashers and Devils in the 10 years before he left the world’s top hockey league. He scored a league-high 41 goals at the age of 20 with the Thrashers in his third year in the league.

Kovalchuk is expected to play against the overmatched Norwegians and to be one of the stars on a new-look power play.

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin seems to be set to replace Alexander Radulov - another forward who left the NHL to play in the KHL - with Kovalchuk and Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk up front while Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin and Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov pass and take slap shots from the back of the team’s top power-play unit.

“We talked to coach after game and we changed lines,” Malkin said.

Bilyaletdinov, though, wouldn’t say if the five skaters who practiced together on Monday would be on the ice on the power play Tuesday against Norway.

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