Few athletes will be under more pressure during the 2014 Winter Olympics than the members of the Russian men's hockey team. It's one of the Games' premier events, and the talented squad has underperformed in recent Olympics, failing to medal each of the last two tournaments.
The players understand the pressure that's going to follow them around their home country throughout the Games. Alex Ovechkin, who will carry much of the burden in Sochi, discussed the situation with Dmitry Chesnokov of Yahoo! Sports:
I think it is not a secret that we are going to be under an immense amount of pressure. The three days we will have will certainly be needed, maybe for someone to recover from an injury, to come up with optimal lines. We will also have to talk about the tactics, about the power play and the penalty kill. I think the special teams will be a very important component for us, a very important aspect of our game.
His comments illustrate how playing at home is a blessing and a curse. Four years ago, Canada benefited from the raucous fan support en route to gold, but the pressure level is high. Knowing that, let's check out the biggest keys to success if Russia wants to match the Canadian success story.
Chemistry Among Top Six
The strength of Russia is obvious. The roster features several dynamic forwards, led by Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. The status of Pavel Datsyuk, who's been sidelined with a lower-body injury, will play a role in exactly how much depth the team has up front.
Regardless of whether or not Datsyuk is ready to roll, Russia's only hope of winning gold is complete dominance by its forwards. A major hurdle that could prevent that from happening is a lack of chemistry on the scoring lines.
Players like Ovechkin and Kovalchuk are used to being the main offensive weapon on their team. The same goes for most of the first two lines. They must find a way to get on the same page, working together to create chances instead of playing as individuals.
Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky could both end up getting playing time in goal for Russia, but the Colorado Avalanche netminder should emerge as the starter for the knockout rounds. He's enjoying a very solid season in Colorado.
How will Russian men's hockey fare in Sochi?
When the United States made its run to the gold-medal game in Vancouver, one of the main reasons it nearly won the tournament was Ryan Miller. The American goalie was outstanding throughout the event, carrying the team through several tough games.
The Russians could really use a similar showing from Varlamov. Ultimately, it's just like in the NHL playoffs. A hot goalie is crucial to success in the Olympics. Russia just hopes he's able to bring some of his momentum from Colorado back to home soil for the Games.
Limit Defensive Miscues
The defensive group is undoubtedly Russia's biggest weakness. There are some seasoned veterans like Andrei Markov and Fedor Tyutin with valuable Olympic experience, but as a whole, the defense will be susceptible to high-powered, opposing offenses.
It doesn't mean Russia isn't a threat for gold. It remains a top contender alongside Canada, Sweden and the United States. Dan St. Pierre of Sports Insights provided a look at the odds heading into the Games with Russia as the second choice:
Men's Olympic Gold Medal Hockey Odds(BetOnline): Canada +200 Russia +225 Sweden +400 USA +550 Czech +1000 Finland +1200 Slovenia +75000— Dan St.Pierre (@DanStPierre9) January 30, 2014
Given their strength offensively, Russia doesn't need outstanding play from its blueliners to win gold; it just needs the group to limit its errors by playing it safe. Simply chipping the puck out of the zone whenever possible and letting the forwards handle the rest is the formula for success.