Sochi is, from what I remember as a kid while spending a summer there, a very pleasant place. It is filled with sunshine and diversity. The sea seemed huge back than and the food vastly differed from what I was used to back north in St. Petersburg. It is funny what you remember about a place when you are just years old. Time goes by without a worry in your mind besides maybe a few times you race to eat a waffle cone filled with ice cream before it melts away.
Sochi today is quite far from the paradise that I remember when I close my eyes and think. Russia in general is no stranger to controversy and the odd scandal here and there. The ways Russia has conducted itself this year has been deemed in the press everything from tyranny due to anti-gay laws to praise for letting a freedom speaker Edward Snowden stay in safety within its borders; while others have held the opposite view that Russia is an enemy of the United States for such actions. Meanwhile, the Sochi Olympics have been no different with allegations about figure skating scores being fixed, questionable regulations, vast amounts of money spent, and less than spectacular athlete and media accommodations.
Breaking through that noise is the Olympics star event, the Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament. The tournament itself has a rich history and has no doubt been the crown jewel of the Winter Olympic Games for some time. Some countries may disagree, but for all involved in reading this, you will no doubt agree with me when I saw that Men’s Ice Hockey is the glamour sport of the Winter Olympics and these gold medals are the biggest prize available in Sochi.
The home team always bares a greater burden at Olympics and this year it is no different. Anything but gold would be a huge disappointment for the Russian squad. While you do have very strong teams in Canada, USA, Finland, and Sweden, this has always been the case. Russia takes huge pride in hockey, especially with how big it has grown its own new home brew league in the KHL, as well as having some of the top NHL players in the league. The talent should be there and the country has rebuilt their programs to have one of the best development systems in recent Russian past. So, who exactly is going to carry the torch for the Russian squad?
Forwards: Artem Anisimov, Pavel Datsyuk, Denis Kokarev, Ilya Kovalchuk, Nikolai Kulemin, Evgeni Malkin, Valeri Nichushkin, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Popov, Alexander Radulov, Alexander Semin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexei Tereschenko, Viktor Tikhonov
It all starts with the first Olympian to carry the Olympic Torch out of Athens and to Russia for these games, Alexander Ovechkin. It is no secret that Ovie has struggled with winning as part of a team, when compared to his own overwhelming individual successes. There is no doubt that he will score goals, but people have been bored with that for some time now. They want more from him and as he probably does for himself as well. Winning gold will not happen without a few goals and Ovie has to be the guy who scores the most for team Russia. Critics will blame the lack of gold on his performance no matter how many goals he scores but Ovechkin must be used to it by now and it seems that he has grown to accept responsibility as any leader would. Yet, hockey is a team sport and even if Ovie is the focal point he cannot do it on his own.
Ovechkin though should have plenty of support. Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins is also one of the best hockey players in the world and should centre Russia’s first line. There are questions about Pavel Datsyuk, but the magician practiced today and it looks like he will play in the tournament. Detroit’s magician remains amongst the best two way players in the game. Alexander Semin has been great for the Russian squad in the world championships and Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk have proven that they can score both in the NHL and in the KHL. Youngsters like Vladimir Tarasenko and Valeri Nichushkin can provide the youthful energy to the team.
The offense is going to be, in my eyes, a bit more timid this year than the high flying Russians we have seen in other years and especially when compared to the likes of Team Canada and Team Sweden. I am really interested in how the lines will settle and if we will see the potent Ovechkin & Datsyuk combo on the ice; one which has shown some great chemistry in recent IIHF World Championships.
Personally, I believe that in order for the Russians to succeed, they should spread their top notch talent out over three lines. Semin has been fairly successful with a creative center and would probably be very effective on either the Malkin or Datsyuk line. Kovalchuk will really need to shoot the puck and will absolutely have to split time apart from Ovie as he also needs to be the main on his line. Kovalchuk and Ovechkin seem to fire away from similar spots on the ice, and so separating them will maximize their potential.
What I would like to see is Datsyuk between Semin and Kovalchuk; followed by a 2nd line of Ovechkin, Malkin, and Nichushkin; and a 3rd line of Anisimov, Tarasenko, and Radulov; with the 4th line consisting of Tershcenko, Tikhonov, and Kulemin/Popov. This would really give the Russian team a good balance of defensively responsible forwards with the best offensive talent spread throughout the lineup so other teams can not simply focus their coverage on a couple of lines.
Defense: Anton Belov, Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov, Evgeny Medvedev, Nikiti Nikitin, Ilya Nikulin, Fedor Tyutin, Slava Voynov
The defence doesn’t bring the same level of superstars like the forwards do in Ovechkin, Malkin and Datsyuk. However in Slava Voynov, Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin, Nikita Nikitin, and Fedor Tyutin there are plenty of solid NHLers who should be familiar to most North American fans. The team also features a young Edmonton Oiler in Anton Belov who is an NHL rookie, and KHLers Evgeny Medvedev and Ilya Nikulin who are amongst the best defencemen in that league. The group can skate, and make quick passes, all of which will be key for the Russian transition game on the bigger Olympic Ice Surface.
Goal: Sergei Bobrovsky, Semyon Varlamov, Alexander Yeryomenko
While most will focus on the offence as Russia’s biggest strength, I have left what I believe to be their best asset for last. I will take some time to to focus on the goaltending and how it is one of the best assets that team Russia has had in a very long time.
Semyon Varlamov is having one of the best seasons of his career. Could it help that his head coach is one of the greatest goaltenders of all time in Patrick Roy? Maybe. He has 28 wins with 2.48 GAA and .924 SAV%. These numbers are really impressive because if you have been paying attention, and I am sure some Colorado fans can attest to this, his team is not exactly putting out the best defense group in the NHL on a night in and night out basis. The team as a whole is also fairly young. As the backbone of the Avalanche squad, Varlamov has elevated his ability to make big time clutch saves to give his team a chance to win every single night. His ability to forget bad goals and move on to make the next big save is something that may have been lacking from Varlamov in previous years, but this season he has grown and joined the top tier of goalies in the league.
Sergei Bobrovsky is not having the same insane Vezina winning season he had just a year ago, but we already know that he can at any point turn into an absolute wall. The good news for team Russia fans is that while Bob struggled out the gate he has posted .926 save percentage in December and a .942 mark in January. This is especially good news as his January games included tough matchups against teams like the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and one of the best teams in the league Anaheim Ducks. The three california teams feature a number of players on the Canadian and US Olympic teams that he will likely be facing later in the tournament. He has also been under pressure as he plays on a Columbus team that lacks dynamic offensive talent and is under pressure to win one-goal games day in and day out. This should be helpful practice for the pressure of the one game elimination tournament format that begins in quarter-final play.
Why am I picking on the goaltending? Well, because a lot of times these quick tournaments with single game eliminations come down to just that, goaltending. And right now Russia is poised with two relatively young goalies that have risen to the top of the best of the best of the best ladder in their sport. It is really exciting because in the past I think Russia was always offense heavy and lacked solid clutch goaltending.
Russia is playing at home and while you can find a strong following at every Olympics for team Russia, this will be different. The house will rock and vodka will spill, the Russian Ice Hockey Team will be expected to win. They are a clear contender for the gold, and if they play at their best, the home side support may be enough to take them over the top.
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