Russia's men's Olympic hockey team boasts top-notch talent and has the power of crowd support on their side in Sochi—this makes them a legitimate threat for the gold medal.
Playing in Group A with the likes of Slovakia, Slovenia and the United States, the Russians are potent enough offensively to blow past their opponents. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov will provide stability in net, but if he can't, the team always has Sergei Bobrovsky to turn back on.
While the defense is the team's lone weakness, it is still strong enough to hold the relatively big leads that the offense will create. The amount of firepower this team has is simply too good to be let down by a defense that might allow two to three goals per contest.
It's hard to pinpoint just a few top performers from such a stacked roster, but here are the three athletes that I predict will fare best in Sochi.
Alex Ovechkin, Forward
Alex Ovechkin will undoubtedly be the offensive catalyst for the Russians. He is one of the top players in the NHL, and there's no reason to believe that he'll underperform against international competition. Especially given how motivated he'll probably be.
Following Russia's 2010 loss in Vancouver, Ovechkin was a wreck. He alienated his Washington Capitals teammates following the loss and was rather immature in handling the media. Of course, he was just 24 at the time. Having matured since then, the expectations are high. Igor Rabiner of championat.com had this to say regarding Ovechkin (via The Washington Post):
Maybe he wasn't psychologically ready for that kind of disaster. He didn't behave too well, and he received a lot of criticism in the media. But he is much more mature now, in his comments, and he is more deep in his interviews. And of course, he is at the top of his form now.
A player who was a superstar, who got in a professional crisis and came back from it is more mature than a young guy just starting out. That’s why I’m saying it will be his Olympics—Ovechkin’s moment.
Ovechkin is once again having a stellar campaign for the Capitals. He leads the NHL in shots (298), goals (40), power play goals (15) and goals at even strength (25). I fully expect him to continue his dominance in 2013-14 and be a force for Russia.
Slava Voynov, Defense
The Russians are hoping that their defense will be greater than the sums of its parts, because there really aren't any individual players that stand out at first glance. One guy with the chance to really break out is Slava Voynov, however.
Voynov has played well this season on the Los Angeles Kings' blue line, though it remains to be seen if he'll be able to take on a leadership role for this unit. The 24-year-old is only in his third NHL season, but he's shown the ability to play very well at times.
He owns a career plus-minus of plus-17, and that type of impact cannot be overlooked. He's consistent enough that his teams play well when he's on the ice. He has 19 assists through 59 games this season, tying a career-high he set in 2012-13. His ability to set up the offense after making defensive stops will go a long way for the team's efficiency.
Look for this to be Voynov's coming out party.
Ilya Kovalchuk, Forward
Ilya Kovalchuk, the former Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils star, is currently tearing it up in the KHL for SKA Saint Petersburg. He has 40 points (16 goals) in 44 games and is "really enjoying" his time in the KHL.
Russia will heavily lean on Kovalchuk as a secondary scoring option. His familiarity with KHL players will give him the advantage over his Russian teammates of the NHL, and that's something that will help him to put up points in Sochi.
Before leaving for the KHL, Kovalchuk posted 417 goals and 399 assists from 2001-2013. He was one of the premier forwards in the NHL that proved entirely too difficult for the Devils to replace. He's had success at every level of his career, and the 2014 Olympics will be no different.
He's a veteran Olympian that has both the experience and motivation to perform on the biggest stage. In front of Team Russia's home crowd, Kovalchuk will not disappoint.
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