Alex Ovechkin (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
The Russians are flawed on defense and in depth, but offensive talent and desire to win on home soil make them top contenders after a poor showing in Vancouver in 2010 and a long gold medal drought.
When you think of the Russians, you think of free-flowing offense and a flair few can match. The host nation has some of the best first-line scoring talent at the Olympics and must squeeze every ounce of production out of that group, because the defensive side is far less secure.
The whole team enters this event with a chip on its shoulder after being eliminated by Canada in a humiliating 7-3 defeat at the 2010 Games. Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, two of the main drivers on offense, each managed only one goal four years ago, while Alex Ovechkin scored his two goals against Latvia. Of the 16 Russia scored in Vancouver, half came against those Latvians. So, if the host is to improve its fortunes – and meet our expectations of a gold medal finish – it needs far more consistency from its best players. That shouldn’t be a problem, since the team has the extra motivation of playing in front of friendly fans at the first Winter Olympics to be hosted by Russia.
If Ovechkin, Datsyuk and Kovalchuk don’t have better performances in Sochi, it’ll be difficult to overcome a mediocre back end. The Russians elected to keep Sergei Gonchar, a power play catalyst, and Anton Volchenkov, a tough-as-nails shutdown player, off the roster. Both are aged and banged up, but those two exclusions mean Russia will only have three blueliners from the 2010 team: Fedor Tyutin, Ilya Nikulin and Andrei Markov.
That means a new generation of D-men will have to manage the pressure of playing in such an important tournament for the country. Slava Voynov will take the place of Gonchar, while Alexei Emelin will play the bruising role Volchenkov would have. How they perform, as well as other Olympic first-timers Anton Belov, Nikita Nikitin and Evgeny Medvedev, will be a determining factor in where the Russians finish.
But it’s the last line of defense that will have the biggest influence on any change in fortune for the Russians. Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky are first-time Olympians with histories of strong play and inconsistency in the NHL. Bobrovsky’s save percentage has dropped by 14 points from his Vezina total last season, though it’s still a respectable .918. And while Varlamov has exceeded all expectations in the NHL this season, his most recent international performance at the 2013 World Championship resulted in a 3.59 goals-against average, .878 SP and an early 8-3 elimination at the hands of the Americans. Given the uncertainty on defense, one of these netminders may have to steal a game or two.
The wild cards are the young, dynamic forwards getting their first taste of Olympic hockey. Vladimir Tarasenko, 22, and Valeri Nichushkin, 19, could enhance and deepen the Russian offense or be non-factors. It’ll be a big challenge.
WHAT HAS TO GO RIGHT
The Russians need to score a ton, probably more than any other country, to win gold. And more than that, the leading forwards need to have a significant presence backchecking and in their own zone, something they didn’t have enough of in 2010. Fair or not, the Russians often get challenged over their motivation, but that shouldn’t be a problem in Sochi. Ovechkin has been talking about playing in these Games since the previous Olympics ended, even if the NHL didn’t get involved. Now it’s time for him to act on that passion.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG
If the Russians are going to allow 42 shots against their most challenging opponents, as they did in the elimination game to Canada in 2010, their house will crumble. The talent of Canada, Sweden and USA and the ferocity of Finland are just too great to allow that kind of access to the net. If the Russians don’t stay focused on cleaning up their own end before looking toward the offensive side of the rink, it will quickly become another disappointing finish. If they are to win their first gold under the Russian flag, a complete buy-in at both ends is necessary.
THN PREDICTION: 1st
WHAT HAPPENED IN VANCOUVER 2010
The Russians had never finished lower than fourth since they began competing at the Olympics in 1992 or even off the podium when playing as the Soviet Union or the Unified Team. That all changed in 2010, when a roster split between NHL and KHL players fell short of expectations. After finishing first in its group, Russia lost 7-3 to Canada in the quarterfinal. Alex Ovechkin was a non-factor in the embarrassing defeat.
A BRIEF OLYMPIC HISTORY
One of the best teams in Olympic history, Russia is a powerhouse on the international scene. Over 15 Winter Games, Russia, the Unified Team and Soviet Union have combined to reach the podium 12 times, winning eight Olympic titles. But things haven’t been the same on the ice since the breakup of the former USSR. After seven gold medals in eight Games between 1964 and 1992, Russia has struggled, finishing higher than fourth only twice and, for the first time, missing the medals completely for a second consecutive Olympics when the team came home empty in 2010.