It’s not going to be a satisfying conclusion for those north of the 49th, but the Russians are going to win gold at the Vancouver Olympics in February.
Of course, a lot can happen in a short tournament and I wouldn’t hit the floor if any one of the Big 7 were to capture the tournament crown, but when I look at the favorites (Canada, Russia and, to a lesser extent, Sweden) and the challenges they’ll face, the pendulum swings the Russkies’ way.
The pressure on Canada will be immense. Yes, the energy of a home crowd can be invigorating, but the weight of a country’s expectations can also be crushing.
It’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges situation, but the burden was on full display at the 2008 World Championship in Quebec City. Team Canada appeared to be squeezing their sticks throughout the goal medal game; never displaying the confidence a team of that ilk should.
The Russians, on the other hand, had their typical recent-day swagger and looked like a team trying to win, rather than one trying not to lose.
Goaltending is no longer a question mark. The one concern that had consistently popped up in regards to a weakness on Team Russia’s roster was between the pipes. That’s no longer an issue, though, with several quality candidates rising to the fore.
San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov and Phoenix’s Ilya Bryzgalov both sit in the top five in goals-against average in the NHL right now, and sport save percentages above .920.
The third in the Russian NHL ‘tending triumvirate, Washington’s Semyon Varlamov, is 8-1-0 so far this season. Though his numbers (2.59 GAA; .911 SP) aren’t as impressive as his comrades’, you must factor in the team he plays for; the Caps’ offensive style provides a lot of opportunities for the opposition.
Each of the three has shown he’s capable of carrying a team and, most importantly, the depth is there if one falters.
No team sports a better collection of high-end talent. There’s no question Canada and, arguably, Sweden have a better collection of skaters top to bottom, but the Russians will enter the tournament with the two best players in the world (or two of the top three, at worst, if you wish to include Sidney Crosby in the mix with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin).
In addition to Alex the Great and Geno, Team Russia also features two other all-world goal-scorers in Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Semin. Both are a danger to find the back of the net every shift and are superior to any one pure-sniper option Canada has to offer.
It’s not as though the Russian squad will be top heavy, either. Beyond the aforementioned four, there are plenty of players both in the NHL (Alexei Kovalev, Alexander Frolov, Slava Kozlov, Maxim Afinogenov, Sergei Samsonov) and Kontinental League (Alexei Yashin, Alexei Morozov, Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Radulov, Maxim Sushinskiy, Nikolai Zherdev) to fill out the other nine forward spots.
The ‘D’ is nothing to sneeze at, either, with a likely top six of Andrei Markov (who’s scheduled to return from injury in early February), Sergei Gonchar, Denis Grebeshkov, Sergei Zubov, Anton Volchenkov and Fedor Tyutin.
And lest we forget the ever-overlooked Pavel Datsyuk, who’s “cooled” of late – only averaging about a point per game this season – but finished fourth in NHL scoring last season with 97 points.
Last time I checked, the team that scores the most goals still wins the game and, for my money, that team will be Russia.
Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog appears Thursdays.
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