There is always pressure for home-country athletes to perform well during the Olympics, but it can be argued that the Russian men's hockey team will be feeling more heat than anyone in Sochi.
Despite boasting one of the most impressive talent pools in the world, Russia has not medaled since taking bronze in 2002, and it hasn't taken gold since the Unified Team did so in the 1992 Albertville Games. Such a drought is unheard of in Russia, after the Soviet Union won seven golds in nine chances from 1956 through 1988.
Russian fans always expect excellence from their team, but that will be taken to another level with the 2014 Olympics occurring on home ice.
With a strong mix of NHL and KHL stars, Russia has been installed as the No. 2 betting favorite behind Canada. Anything short of gold would be a disappointment for Russia, but anything short of a medal would be unacceptable this time around.
Getting strong performances out of its role players will be important, but Russia's superstars will have to play up to that level in order to overcome the likes of Canada, USA, Sweden, et al.
Here are a few of the biggest Russian hockey stars to watch in Sochi as they hold the fate of Russian Olympic hockey in their quick and lethal hands.
|Sergei Bobrovsky||G||Columbus Blue Jackets|
|Semyon Varlamov||G||Colorado Avalanche|
|Alexander Eremenko||G||Dynamo Moscow|
|Anton Belov||D||Edmonton Oilers|
|Slava Voynov||D||Los Angeles Kings|
|Alexei Emelin||D||Montreal Canadiens|
|Andrei Markov||D||Montreal Canadiens|
|Evgeny Medvedev||D||AK Bars Kazan|
|Nikita Nikitin||D||Columbus Blue Jackets|
|Ilya Nikulin||D||AK Bars|
|Fedor Tyutin||D||Columbus Blue Jackets|
|Artem Anisimov||F||Columbus Blue Jackets|
|Pavel Datsyuk||F||Detroit Red Wings|
|Ilya Kovalchuk||F||SKA St. Petersburg|
|Denis Kokarev||F||Dynamo Moscow|
|Nikolai Kulemin||F||Toronto Maple Leafs|
|Evgeni Malkin||F||Pittsburgh Penguins|
|Valeri Nichushkin||F||Dallas Stars|
|Alex Ovechkin||F||Washington Capitals|
|Alexander Popov||F||Avangard Omsk|
|Alexander Radulov||F||CSKA Moscow|
|Alexander Semin||F||Carolina Hurricanes|
|Sergei Viktorovich||F||Dynamo Moscow|
|Vladimir Tarasenko||F||St. Louis Blues|
|Alexey Tereschenko||F||AK Bars Kazan|
|Viktor Tikhonov||F||SKA St. Petersburg|
Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin has been one of the NHL's most dynamic players since entering the league, and that remains true this season. Despite missing several games due to injury, "Great Eight" leads the NHL in goal scoring by a wide margin with 36 tallies. In addition to that, there may be no more nationalistic player in hockey than Ovechkin. He is clearly proud to represent Russia in the Olympics, and he hasn't taken too kindly to some of the shots taken against Russia during the lead-up to the Winter Games, according to the Nick Zaccardi of the Associated Press:
To be honest with you, I don't like to hear what the people say about Russia. Because lots of people say good things, lots of people say bad things. I'm kind of the guy who supports my country. Whatever happened has happened. And there's nothing I can do, nothing you can do.
Perhaps the best way for Ovechkin to show support for his country would be to play at the highest level possible in Sochi. Ovechkin is dangerous night in and night out for the Caps in a league that is short of scoring, so it's exciting to think about what he might be able to do in the Olympics. Playing on a larger ice surface will make him even more dangerous since he'll have more room to get his shot off, and that is a scary proposition for opposing netminders.
Which player is the biggest key to Russia's success in Sochi?
For as much publicity as Ovechkin receives, Evgeni Malkin may very well be Russia's best all-around player. Despite the fact that Malkin is a generational talent, he is often overshadowed on all fronts. When it comes to playing for Russia, it's difficult for him to get noticed more than a flashier player like Ovechkin. That is even an issue in the NHL since Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Sidney Crosby is widely considered to be the best player in the game today.
When push comes to shove, however, Malkin is often the one who makes winning plays for his team. He isn't viewed as a physical player by any means, but he uses his 6'3" frame to shield the puck effectively, and his possession style should mesh beautifully with a gunner like Ovechkin. Malkin also happens to be a great skater for a man his size, which means that the possibilities are endless for him on the Olympic sheet.
Having won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2009, Malkin knows how to produce when it matters most. He certainly wasn't to blame for Russia's Olympic failures in 2010 either, with six points in four games. Malkin is in fine form as he is producing at well over a point-per-game clip in the NHL, and there is reason to believe that he will be a big-time contributor in the Olympics.
After 11 fantastic NHL seasons, winger Ilya Kovalchuk shockingly decided to spurn the New Jersey Devils in favor of the KHL's SKA St. Petersburg, prior to the 2013-14 campaign. Kovalchuk was one of the NHL's top snipers, and he is now the KHL's preeminent superstar. Although the 30-year-old Kovalchuk's KHL numbers aren't as dominant as expected with 40 points in 44 contests, his skills are still razor-sharp as seen in this video, courtesy of KHL Hockey on Twitter.
Like Ovechkin, Kovalchuk is a player who thrives when he receives a high volume of opportunities to shoot the puck. With that in mind, it is possible that there are too many offensive mouths to feed on Team Russia. If Kovalchuk and Ovechkin can find a happy medium, though, this team will be extremely difficult to beat.
Kovalchuk's greatest value may be as a point man on the power play. Russia has so many skilled forwards that, playing shorthanded against it, is like waving the white flag. Kovalchuk has an unbelievably powerful and accurate shot from the point. He also happens to be one of the top shootout artists in the world, and that may very well come into play as the tournament progresses.
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