As Russia hosts the Winter Olympics for the first time ever, its men's hockey team is looking to stake a claim on gold in Sochi during the 2014 Games.
Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the addition of NHL players starting in 1998, it's been a rocky hockey road for the once-dominant Big Red Machine.
From 1956-1988, the Soviet Union took home seven Olympic gold medals, one silver and one bronze in nine appearances. The Unified Team also won Olympic gold in 1992 as the dust settled on the new national divisions, but in the six Games since Russia became a stand-alone nation, the Russians have won only a silver medal in 1998 and a bronze in 2002 in men's hockey, a sport that used to be theirs for the taking.
Icing a Russian team that's brimming with talent, expectations are high for a good showing in front of friends, family and dignitaries in Sochi. On paper, the team looks good, but when the tournament begins, the Russians could be hard-pressed to deliver gold.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com.
Gotta be Gold
As Chris Stevenson of the QMI Agency (via the Toronto Sun) puts it, in regard to the whole Sochi Oympic endeavor: "Russian president Vladimir Putin has pretty much built a $50-billion stage for the hockey team." All gold medals are good, but some are better than others—like men's hockey.
The Russian team will be under tremendous pressure. Will the players be able to play the best hockey of their lives when their nation demands it most?
Eyebrows were raised when 10 KHL players were included in the Russian roster that was announced in January, especially since a number of the choices were veterans who lacked star power even in their homeland. Workhorse Sergei Soin has since been injured and replaced by flashy Carolina Hurricanes winger Alex Semin. But by all appearances, the selection of the national team roster was tilted to favor a number of loyal players who had chosen to stay and play in Russia.
The Russian team includes players who spent time in the NHL but ultimately went home to play. Ilya Kovalchuk made a huge statement last year when he left a lucrative long-term deal with the New Jersey Devils to return to Russia. Alex Radulov never found a comfort level in North America but has been a perpetual scoring star back home in the KHL.
The captain of Team Russia has been on injured reserve since Detroit's Winter Classic game on Jan. 1 with what's only been described as a lower-body injury. Ansar Khan of mlive.com believes it's a knee problem and says Datsyuk's ready to put himself to the test on Feb. 6 in Florida.
The outlook for Russia will be good if the crafty center is able to pass his on-ice test; an absent or underperforming Datsyuk would seriously impact the Russians' medal chances.
Loyalty to his homeland is the biggest reason why Ilya Kovalchuk pulled the plug on his $102 million contract with the New Jersey Devils to return home to Russia during the summer of 2013. Kovalchuk has 40 points in 44 games this season with his SKA St. Petersburg team in the KHL, but the Olympics will be his real opportunity to make his country proud. Expect the talented winger to be working in overdrive in Sochi.
The NHL's leading goal scorer is always excited to play for his country. These Olympics are even more special because they're also being played in Russia. Ovechkin and teammate Evgeni Malkin are two of the best players in the world, and they've played together since they were kids. With Russia expecting gold, look for Ovechkin to deliver his A-plus game on this year's Olympic stage.
If the Russians have one defenseman who could make a splash during the Games, it's 24-year-old Slava Voynov of the Los Angeles Kings. A sneaky-good second-round draft choice, Voynov has challenged Drew Doughty as the Kings' best defenseman. He should make a name for himself in front of his fellow countrymen in Sochi.
First Line: Alex Ovechkin - Evgeni Malkin - Alexander Semin
Second Line: Ilya Kovalchuk - Pavel Datsyuk - Alexander Radulov
Third Line: Nikolai Kulemin - Artem Anisimov - Vladimir Tarasenko
Fourth Line: Alexander Popov - Alexei Tereschenko - Valeri Nichushkin
Extras: Aleksander Svitov, Viktor Tikhonov
Note: Alexander Semin is an injury replacement for Sergei Soin, while Alexander Svitov replaces Denis Kokarev.
First Pairing: Andrei Markov - Slava Voynov
Second Pairing: Fedor Tyutin - Alexei Emelin
Third Pairing: Nikita Nikitin - Ilya Nikulin
Extras: Anton Belov, Evgeny Medvedev
1. Semyon Varlamov
Varlamov's presence on Team Russia is so important to Russian government officials, one of them called the goalie's October domestic violence arrest "an effort to weaken our national team," per NBC Olympic Talk.
The 25-year-old was off to a fantastic start with the Colorado Avalanche this season when the accusations hit. Since then, his play has tapered off a bit, but his team has remained strong, and the charges against him have been dropped. It should be full speed ahead in Sochi.
2. Sergei Bobrovsky
Should a reigning Vezina Trophy winner be a second-string goalie at the Olympics? That's the "good problem" that coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov and his staff will need to address. With his Columbus Blue Jackets on a roll, Bobrovsky's numbers are a hair better than Varlamov's through Feb. 5, and he's trending in the right direction. The competition between the two netminders could drive them both to give their very best.
3. Alexander Yeryomenko
Yeryomenko is the 33-year-old backstop for Dynamo Moscow who's won KHL playoff MVP honors while leading his team to the Gagarin Cup championship for the last two years. He may not have the name recognition of Varlamov or Bobrovsky in North America, but if called upon, he'll have no trouble stopping the puck.
Head Coach: Zinetula Bilyaletdinov
"Bill" took over the Russian national team from head coach Vyacheslav Bykov after the group's fourth-place finish at the 2011 World Championship. It was Russia's first time out of the medals since Bykov took over in 2006 and came on the heels of the disappointing sixth-place Olympic performance in Vancouver in 2010.
Bilyaletdinov had a distinguished playing career as a defenseman with Dynamo Moscow and has two Olympic medals from the old USSR from his playing days. He was part of the Russian side of the 1980 Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid that settled for silver but came back to win gold in 1984 in Sarajevo.
Before assuming his national team duties, Bilyaletdinov had a successful coach career in the KHL with Ak Bars Kazan. He also spent time as an assistant with the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes organization from 1993 to 1997.
In his first year behind the Russian bench at the 2012 World Championship, he led his team to a gold medal. In 2013, Russia fell to USA in the quarterfinal, eventually finishing sixth.
Russia's top two lines are more explosive than any other team's at the Olympics. The Malkin-Ovechkin combination has proven lethal time after time and will get extra punch from Ovi's old teammate Alexander Semin on the other wing. On the second line, the highly skilled Pavel Datsyuk will center snipers Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov. Add the scoring prowess of young guns like Tarasenko and Nichushkin, and Russia should have no trouble putting goals on the board.
As the Olympics get set to begin, North Americans are being bombarded by tales of cramped athletes' quarters, unfinished hotels and subpar living conditions.
Rest assured, Team Russia will see none of this. Like any host nation, Russian authorities have high expectations for their athletes and will do anything in their power to give them the edge. The hockey players are being carefully shielded from the international media, and you can bet that luxury will be the order of the day for the Russian team—as long as it's winning.
Slava Voynov's a world-class defenseman. Andrei Markov's pretty good when he's healthy. But that's about the best that can be said for the Russian defense corps. The rest of the group is made up of mid-level defenders who would typically be second- or third-pairing guys in the NHL.
It's a good thing this Russian team is poised to score a lot of goals and has good goaltending; it will need both to make up for the opportunities the defense will hand over to the opposition.
As I wrote about Team Sweden yesterday, the Russians aren't the only ones gunning for gold at these Games. Team Russia certainly has a right to be considered among the favorites, and after Canada's home-ice win in 2010, it seems plausible that a nation can help spur its home team to victory. The tournament will feature other worthy contenders like Canada, the U.S. and the Swedes. Hockey's a game of inches, and as we've seen before, once the teams get onto the ice, anything can happen.
Russia is part of Group A for the preliminary round.
Groupings are based on 2012 world rankings, when Russia was No. 1. The Russians' sixth-place finish at the 2013 World Championship win moved them down to third place. They find themselves in a tough group with current No. 6 Team USA, No. 8 Slovakia and No. 17 Slovenia.
Slovenia secured its berth in the tournament through qualification, so it should be no match for the Russians. The Americans and Slovaks both have the potential to upset the home team during the preliminary-round game, wreaking havoc with their playoff seeding and potentially unleashing a firestorm of anxiety among Russia's faithful fans.
Russia's Preliminary-Round Games:
Thurs. Feb. 13 at 7:30 a.m. ET: Russia vs. Slovenia (MSNBC in U.S.; CBC in Canada)
Sat. Feb. 15 at 7:30 a.m. ET: Russia vs. USA (NBC Sports Network in U.S.; CBC in Canada)
Sun. Feb. 16 at 7:30 a.m. ET: Russia vs. Slovakia (USA Network in U.S.; TBA in Canada)
U.S. television information courtesy of Examiner.com.
Ovi and Malkin Forever
There's no love lost between Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin when their Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins face off against each other in the NHL, but the pair are like brothers when it comes to the Russian national team.
Ovechkin's a year older than Malkin, but the pair have been lighting it up together going all the way back to the World Under-18 Championship in 2002-03. They've played together at World Juniors, the World Cup, World Championships and two prior Olympics. The dynamic duo is hoping it'll be third time lucky for gold this year in Sochi.
At just 18 years old, Valeri Nichushkin is one of the youngest hockey players to be competing at these Olympics. Even before he was drafted by the Dallas Stars last summer, the big winger played 18 games with grown men for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL, proving he was ready to step in immediately at the NHL level.
So far this season, Nichushkin has 12 goals and 27 points in 54 NHL games with the Stars, and he hasn't looked out of place. His Olympic opportunity will be one more step in the development of a very special player who's part of Russia's next generation.
While no team needs the 2014 gold medal more than Russia, it will be hard-pressed to win it.
Expect at least one upset game in the preliminary round, leading to a tough playoff-round matchup. Russia should be in the hunt for a medal, but it might not be gold.