Preliminary play is underway in Vancouver and Team Russia is looking to erase more than two decades of frustration as they seek a gold medal performance here in the 2010 Winter Olympics after a string of disappointments.
In the ten Winter Olympiads spanning from 1956 to 1992, Russia was dominant. Under the old USSR regime, they won eight gold medals in that span, derailed just twice. Both times came at the hands of the Americans, in 1960 and of course the Miracle on Ice in 1980. They took silver in 1960 and bronze in 1980, giving them medals in ten straight Olympic games in the sport, after not fielding a team until 1956.
Tougher times have followed for the Motherland since in the four Olympic Games since Albertville in 1992. Russia has found the podium just twice in those four years, winning the silver in 1998 and the bronze in 2002. A fourth place finish in Torino in 2006 ended with a dull thud as the Czech Republic blanked them 3-0 to claim the bronze.
With one of the most talented collections of forwards the game has ever seen on one bench Russia looks to wipe the bad taste of failure from their mouths and live up to their number one overall ranking from the IIHF.
TEAM RUSSIA OLYMPIC ROSTER
BETWEEN THE PIPES
The Russians boast a talented if not enigmatic trio of netminders as they look to topple powerhouses such as Canada and Sweden.
Evgeni Nabokov will most likely be the starting netminder for Russia. Nabokov has international experience as he played originally for Kazakhstan in 1994 at the World Championships.
This will be his second Olympics as he also took part in the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy for Russia.
He was also a member of the gold medal winning 2008 World Championship team where he was named best goaltender. He has been stellar in international play, posting an 11-2-0 mark in 13 outings with a 1.46 GAA and five shutouts.
Ilya Bryzgalov is more than capable of stepping in should Nabokov falter. He backstopped Russia to a second consecutive World Championship gold in 2009. In that competition Bryzgalov went 7-0-0 with a 2.09 GAA, one shutout and a save percentage of 92.9 percent.
This will be Bryzgalov’s third Olympics, as he was also a member of the 2002 team that won bronze. He’d like to see more action than the combined one game he’s played in his first two Olympics.
Semyon Varlamov is the third goaltender and most likely the netminder of the future for Russia. He is just coming back from a long layoff after an injury. His start last Thursday against Ottawa was his first since a shutout of Tampa Bay back on December 7th, 2009. He has a pair of silver medals from the World Junior Championships in 2006 and 2007, and will be the youngest player on Team Russia by two years of age.
ON THE BLUELINE
Russia has a mix of NHL and KHL players on the blueline with plenty of experience necessary to shut down opposing teams.
There is a mix of both NHL and KHL players comprising the defense corps, and coach Slava Bykov is not hurting when it comes to talent.
Andrei Markov would have to be considered the anchor of the blueline for Russia. He seems to be fully recovered from a lacerated ankle he suffered back in October and has 45 games of World Cup and Olympic experience to draw from.
Throw in thirteen games of World Junior Championship experience when Russia won silver and bronze in 1997 and 1998 and Markov is a solid leader on the ice.
He will be making his second Olympic appearance, though he does have two bronze and a gold medal to his credit from his last three World Cup appearances.
Sergei Gonchar is a seasoned veteran as well that will be expected to log heavy minutes and provide leadership to the Russian blueline.
Gonchar has 43 games of international experience and will be making his fourth Olympic appearance. He won a silver medal in the 1998 Olympics and bronze in 2002. He also was a member of the Stanley Cup champion Penguins last season. He is an offensive defenseman that can really run a power play.
The complete counter to Gonchar would be Anton Volchenkov. Where Gonchar is flash and dash, joining the rush to tip the offensive scales in favor of his team, Volchenkov is a stay at home defenseman.
He is consistently among the league leaders in blocked shots and is considered one of the toughest players in the league. He has won gold at the World Junior Championships, plus gold and silver at the World Cup. This will be his second Olympic appearance in his career.
Dmitri Kalinin, Fedor Tyutin, Denis Grebeshkov, Ilya Nikulin and Konstantin Korneyev will all be battling for their fair share of playing time as well. The first three have had a fair amount of NHL experience, while the latter two have both participated on Russia’s last three World Cup teams, winning two gold and one bronze medal.
CRASHING THE NET
Russia has a collection of firepower that may be unrivaled by any other country in the tournament.
The three nominees for the Hart Trophy which is awarded to the Most Valuable Player in the NHL were all Russians. They could easily be lighting the lamp at will with such a group.
The Russians are led by the aforementioned trio consisting of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk. Those three combined for an impressive 123 goals and 197 assists for 320 points in the 2008/09 season.
Ovechkin is the ultimate sniper, leading the NHL in goals the past two seasons with 65 and 56 respectively. He is extremely dangerous and can score from anywhere on the ice.
He already has tallied 42 times in 54 games so far this season while becoming a more complete offensive player as evidenced by his 47 assists.
He also is the only player in NHL history to win the Hart, Pearson, Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies in the same season.
He has a gold and two bronze medals from World Championship play and will make his second Olympic appearance. In 48 international games Ovechkin has tallied 25 goals and tacked on 15 assists.
Malkin is a smooth skating playmaker who has one thing Ovechkin doesn’t have on his resume: a Stanley Cup. Malkin won the Art Ross Trophy with his 113 point campaign in 2008/09 then posted 36 points in 24 playoff games to help the Penguins dethrone the Detroit Red Wings in seven games to win the Cup.
That performance also earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy for Most Valuable Player in the playoffs. He has two bronze medals from World Championship play and will be making his second Olympic appearance as well. In 32 international games Malkin has tallied 10 goals and 19 assists.
Datsyuk is a tough competitor who can play both ends of the ice and make things happen. This will be his third Olympic Games as he was a member of the bronze winning team in 2002 and then the 2006 team as well. In 41 international games he has 7 goals and 21 assists to his credit. While he hasn’t played for his home country since 2006 Datsyuk is coming off back to back 97 point seasons in Detroit.
Only on a team with talent like the trio mentioned above would Ilya Kovalchuk be the equivalent of an afterthought. Kovalchuk is deadly when he shoots the puck as evidenced by two 50 goal and three 40 goal seasons to his credit going into this season. His recent trade to New Jersey will give him a chance at postseason experience which is something he lacked in Atlanta.
He has 32 goals and 63 points so far this season. In 66 games of international play, he has 25 goals and 27 assists for a total of 52 points. 2010 marks his third Olympic Games and he has been a member of the last three World Championships.
Young studs like Alexander Radulov and Alexander Semin will see time with long time NHL veterans like Sergei Fedorov, Maxim Afinogenov and Viktor Kozlov. KHL players Sergei Zinojev, Danis Zaripov and team captain Aleksey Morozov round out the forwards.
The Russians hope to erase the frustration that has plagued them since the demise of the old Soviet Union.
They have tasted gold but once in the Olympics since 1988 and won just three World Championships since 1992.
It would be difficult to foresee any team being able to win a high scoring shootout with the Russians, allowing them to take a few chances offensively.
Teams will have a difficult time shutting down the lines that Russia can roll out there.
This may well be the best chance for them to regain the throne that they dominated for the better part of four decades in their glory days. I would expect them to take the gold and finish no worse than silver.