No team enters the 2014 Winter Olympics under more pressure than the Russian Federation. While the Soviet Union routinely came away with the gold medal at the Olympics, in the era of best-on-best play, Russia has been entirely shut out.
The country didn’t even medal at the last two Olympic tournaments, and with this year’s games being held on Russian soil, expectations for a breakthrough are incredibly high.
That’s a problem, because while Russia can go head-to-head with any other team in the world in terms of offensive talent, the roster beyond that has some significant weaknesses.
All is not lost, though. Along with their weaknesses, the Russians boast some significant advantages that other teams in the tournament will not have.
The most important thing working in Russia’s favour is familiarity with the big ice. While Sweden can match Russia there, the other two teams in international hockey’s Big Four (Canada and the United States) cannot.
It is a familiarity that extends beyond the players, who developed on Olympic-sized rinks and had the east-west instincts that work so well overseas embedded into the way they play. It reaches the coaching staff too.
Head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov brings an exceptional resume for a tournament of this nature. Not only has he had success as a KHL head coach, but he spent four seasons in North America as an assistant coach with the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes franchise.
That lends him an understanding of North American tactics that many Russian coaches lack, as well as an innate familiarity with what kind of system works on European rinks.
So what can Bilyaletdinov do with the roster he has? It starts on the back end.
Russia’s defence, while less talented than the groups assembled by some other teams in the tournament, has two big strengths: size and puck-moving ability. Six of the team’s regulars are big bodies—the only exceptions are the exceptional Andrei Markov and Slava Voynov—and all eight guys are puck-moving defencemen.
Both qualities are important.
The size of Russia’s defence corps allows it to hold the area in front of the net, limiting shot attempts to the outside where they will be less dangerous.
Their ability to move the puck quickly allows the team to get out of its own end and counterattack as soon as possession changes. Given the quality of Russia’s forwards, that’s a vital attribute.
Where the forwards come in is with their ability to deliver an overwhelming attack. The Russians boast a group of outstanding offensive players headlined by Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Radulov and Alexander Semin.
That group will make the opposition pay when it surrenders opportunities, make the power play hum and have enough creativity to create offence out of nothing.
Though the depth lines have less creativity, they know how to play a defensive game on Olympic ice. Players like Artem Anisimov and Nikolai Kulemin can play shutdown minutes in the NHL, but have familiarity with the bigger ice, while virtually the entire group of KHL players are defence-first forwards who are on the team to provide penalty-killing and safe even-strength minutes.
It is a roster that, handled correctly, could very well win the gold medal.
All of the forwards have a better instinctive understanding than the North Americans of how to make use of the extra space on the ice.
The top forwards on the team are among the most creative offensive threats in the world, and that creativity married to familiarity with the European style of play is going to be an extremely difficult force to match.
The rest of the roster, from the defence up to the lower forward lines, is designed to defend on an Olympic ice surface.
Being able to win battles in the corners and move a puck under pressure matter less because of the extra space. Being able to defend the front of the net and maintain possession of the puck once it is obtained matter a lot more. This is a group that really emphasizes the latter qualities and should be able to punch above its weight as a result.
Winning gold will not be easy, but if this Russian team plays to its strengths, it isn't out of reach either.
For more pieces by Jonathan Willis, follow him on Twitter.