The board is set, the pieces are moving, and the day has finally come when Team Russia hits the ice in Vancouver in search of their first Olympic Gold medal since the Unified Team in 1992.
General Manager Vladislav Tretiak has assembled what he believes to be the best squad since the fall of the Soviet Union, but can it actually live up to those lofty expectations?
Well, here to answer that and all other questions about the 2010 edition of the Sbornaya are Sergei Miledin and myself, Sergey Zikov.
While the two countrymen share the same first name, that is about all they share.
On the other hand, Sergey Zikov was born in Russia's second capital and supports the arch-rivals of Spartak, Zenit St. Petersburg. He is also a big fan of the Devils' Atlantic Division rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins. But now, they are united under one banner.
First, let's take a look at the roster and see what Slava Bykov's line combinations might be.
Forwards: Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Fedorov, Sergei Zinoviev, Ilya Kovalchuk (A), Danis Zaripov, Alexander Semin, Alexander Ovechkin (A), Maxim Afinogenov, Alexander Radulov, Viktor Kozlov, Aleksei Morozov (C)
Defense: Andrei Markov, Sergei Gonchar, Anton Volchenkov, Ilya Nikulin, Dmitri Kalinin, Denis Grebeshkov, Fedor Tyutin, Konstantin Korneev
Goaltenders: Evgeni Nabokov, Ilya Bryzgalov, Semyon Varlamov
SZ: This is indeed a wealth of talent. For my first line, I would put Washington Capitals teammates Ovechkin and Semin on the top line along with the two-time Selke Award winner Datsyuk. To me, this line has some of everything—the defensive prowess of Datsyuk, Ovechkin's grit and physicality, and the puck skills of Semin. But maybe most of all, that's an awful lot of points scored by that line.
My second line would consist of Kovalchuk, Malkin, and Radulov. Kovalchuk once again has another 30 goal season while Malkin has peaked at the right time and is now riding a 13-game point streak. They will be joined by Radulov of Salavat Yulaev, who has 58 points in 51 games.
The third line is Fedorov, Kozlov, and Afinogenov. They have the three "S's": speed, skill and size. But as well, they are all very experienced players that have played many games in their careers. Fedorov could also jump up and play with the top line on occasion.
The fourth line of Zaripov, Zinoviev, and Morozov will look to provide a defensive combination, as well as good secondary scoring.
On defense, the pairings are a little more challenging to decipher, especially due to the injury concerns of Andrei Markov. But assuming all players are healthy and ready to go, I would combine Markov with Gonchar, Volchenkov with Grebeshkov, Tyutin with Kalinin, and Korneev with Nikulin.
Markov and Gonchar are the two big names and will log the most ice time, as well as power play time. But they are also more than adequate defenders in their own zone and can pass the puck extremely well. In Switzerland, Volchenkov and Grebeshkov paired together to form a "shut down" unit, leading Russia to a 2-1 championship victory over Canada.
From the KHL, Ilya Nikulin can be a bit hot-headed but also very physical, and he would be paired with the calm presence of Korneev.
SM: I hate guessing lines because I'm pretty terrible at it, but I would like to see a line of Malkin centering Ovechkin and Semin, although that might be a power play only situation. The plethora of talent is so vast that you can just kind of pluck anyone and throw them wherever.
Maybe Kozlov and Ovechkin, who were not only teammates last year in Washington, but also connected on the memorable goal against Canada in Turin. Or you can re-unite Fedorov with Semin and Ovie or have Kovalchuk in the mix. Honestly, there are so many combinations I often have trouble falling asleep trying to conjure them in my head.
You can have an ex-NHL line with Fedorov, Morozov and Kozlov or re-unite Kovalchuk with Afinogenov, who Ilya actually insisted that the Atlanta Thrashers pursue in the off-season. Heck, you can even make a Canada-killer line with Ovechkin (Turin 2006), Kovalchuk (Quebec 2008) and Radulov (Bern 2009).
The defensive pairings make things a bit more interesting as the talent in the back doesn't quite match what's up front. After the pairing of Gonchar and Markov, who can hopefully play as an injury forced him out of the last two Montreal Canadiens games, the depth is thin.
Tyutin and Grebeshkov, or possibly Volchenkov in place of either, Nikulin and Kalinin just sound good off the tongue so they could work too.
I think leaving Sergei Zubov off might hurt the team but that remains to be seen, the best Russian-born defenseman to ever play in the NHL could have provided an extra boost. He currently has 40 points in 50 games for SKA St. Petersburg this season.
Next, who might have the largest impact on Russia's path to a Gold medal?
SM: For me, the biggest impact will be from that Ovechkin fellow, you know, the one with all the wacky goals and silly English? All kidding aside, this is Ovechkin's time to shine.
In pursuit of his third straight NHL scoring title, Ovechkin has been red hot and plays his best under pressure. Whether it will be providing to an offense that could probably do just fine without him or playing the body (see Chris Chelios in Turin), this is Ovechkin's team.
He will play in many Olympics to come, but the time is now for Alex the Great and this team is built for Gold.
SZ: There are three players who need to have a great tournament in order for Russia to bring a Gold back to the motherland.
First is Alexander Semin. Everybody knows about the "Great 8", and every defense will do their best to shut him down. But the other Alex can take full advantage of the distraction. As a hot-and-cold player, Semin has been nearly unstoppable when paired up with Ovechkin in Washington.
He has four goals in the two games before the Olympic break and is as confident in his play as he ever has been.
The next impact player is Anton Volchenkov. If there is one thing that could be said about this team, it will have no problems scoring goals. The main concern is if the defense can slow the other team down enough. Volchenkov is a defensive defenseman that serves as a second goaltender on the ice.
His ability to not only block a ton of shots, but pair up against any top forward on an opposing team makes him a priceless tool in Bykov's shed. If one forward is not producing, others can step up for him. But nobody can replicate what Volchenkov does.
The final impact player has to be the goaltender. Whether it is Nabokov or Bryzgalov in net, as both should see some time, they must be strong when called upon. Chances are, they will not need to make 40 or more saves a game in order to win, but it will come down to making the big saves in key moments that will propel Russia to victory.
What are a few reasons why Russia can win the Gold medal this year? Or reasons why they won't?
SZ: With any great team, it all starts with chemistry. If the players don't mesh well together, they can't be expected to win much. Despite the fact that not many of the players on this team play for the same club, they are all very good friends off the ice.
"...Bryzgalov, fully decked in goalie gear, took to playing defense in front of Varlamov, causing the young Capital no end of annoyance," the Washington Post reports. "However, it was Semin who provided the biggest highlight of the evening. Once the team arrived in the Olympic Village, the winger noticed that one of the golf carts was standing nearby with the key still in. Laughing his head off, Semin duly committed grand theft auto as he jumped into the cart, drove up to Kozlov and offered him a ride."
This team is not only relaxed, but loves being together and competing. With all the pressure that has mounted on Team Canada by playing at home, the Russian team feels almost no pressure whatsoever.
This team can also win it all because they are never out of a game. Even if they get behind early, there will always be the feeling that they can come back with their high-powered offensive juggernaut. That mentality not only inspires the players, but strikes fear into the opposition, knowing that no lead is safe.
But like any team, there are a few reasons why they won't be able to win.
Is this team too loose? While being able to enjoy themselves is an advantage for sure, it can also be a downfall if it takes away from the overall focus. Will the defense be good enough? Both Nabokov and Bryzgalov are strong in net, but they will need some help from the defensive depth. Gonchar, Markov and Volchenkov can not play 35 minutes a game.
SM: The team is clearly heading into the games with one goal, and that goal is of course shared by the likes of Canada, Sweden and the U.S.A. However, what sets this team apart from the rest is the relaxed atmosphere they've created as mentioned by Sergey.
This is a far cry from the Red Machine, who was all business and no smiles back in the Golden Era of Soviet hockey. I have yet to find a practice picture without someone laughing or smirking. Coming in as the top-ranked team in the world can give you confidence and maybe a shade of cockiness. Who's to say to this young team that you can't have a bit of fun along the way?
I believe once the Group stages end, things will get a bit more serious around the team. In Turin, after upsetting Canada 2-0, they went on to lose to both Finland and the Czechs (both shutouts). You can bet your last rouble that they have not forgotten that quick and embarrassing exit.
While the possibility looms that it can happen again, I do not see history repeating itself this time around with the firepower and two excellent goaltenders.
Finally, a few predictions for the Group Stage?
Latvia, February 16, 21:00 PST, CNBC
SZ: On paper, this should be a blowout of epic proportions. But with the Latvians, nothing is ever as easy as it seems. Nearly all the players are from Dinamo Riga and know each other extremely well, so that is a challenge by itself. But as long as the Sbornaya do not overlook the Latvians, this game could get out of control quickly.
SM: The first game against Latvia, or should I say Dinamo Riga, should be pretty interesting to watch as this will be the easiest opponent of the tournament. I expect Russia to completely dominate and put up at least five goals. The team could set the tone for the entire games with a dominant performance and it will be interesting to watch how many times Bykov shuffles the cards.
Slovakia, February 18, 21:00 PST, CNBC
SM: The Slovaks will be a tougher challenge with more NHL caliber players to match that of the Sbornaya. Jaroslav Halak has been solid for the Montreal Canadiens and will look to continue that trend in Vancouver. Marian Gaborik, who finally needed his own teammate's skate to finally get injured (which I have been waiting for since he arrived on Broadway) will be out of the lineup and his offense will surely be missed.
The next exciting thing about their roster are the three players from Spartak Moscow, which could mean another win for Russia but a bit harder than Latvia.
SZ: This could be a very challenging or a rather simple game, depending on how you look at it. The Slovaks could be without quite a number of big guns, if Hossa and Gaborik can not play at 100 percent. But either way, this should be a significant upgrade over Latvia in terms of a measuring stick for Russia.
The Slovaks also beat Russia in 2006 and won Group B over the Sbornaya. So they have that advantage of knowing they can win. But if Russia can score early on Jaroslav Halak, there might not even be anything Zdeno Chara can do about it.
Czech Republic, February 21, 12:00 PST, NBC
SZ: The Czechs provide the final test for Russia in the Group Stage, but the challenge they pose is much greater than perhaps any other. With an outstanding netminder in Tomas Vokoun, the Czechs will be able to weather any kind of offensive storm.
They will also provide a stern test to Russia's defense, because while they don't have any truly phenomenal forwards, it is a very solid group from top to bottom.
SM: The Czechs will be Russia's toughest opponent in the Group Stage and a rematch of the Bronze medal game from Turin. Like the Slovaks, the Czechs will rely heavily on Tomas Vokoun, who is an absolute game changer.
Jaromir Jagr will most likely be in his last Olympics and could be showing the world and NHL teams that he might be worth their time once his contract expires in the KHL. The likes of Patrik Elias and Martin Havlat can be a dangerous duo but the further down the line you go, the talent diminishes.
The game will be closer than I would like, but I do see Russia avenging their loss in convincing fashion.
Sergei and Sergey also write for From Russia With Glove, a website that features all things Russian in the world of hockey, from the NHL to the KHL. Check us out to see the newest Comrade of the Night!
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