Russia has scoring to lead it back to prominence
|Ilya Kovalchuk hopes to put Russia on the medal stand.|
Granted, its effectiveness was greatly enhanced -- if not largely enabled -- by a centralized, insulated political system at home and some far more stringent interpretations of the concept of amateurism abroad.
Still, from 1956, when it first entered a hockey team into an Olympic tournament, through 1992, when it operated under the ironic banner of "Unified Team," the Soviet Union relentlessly ruled the rinks under the rings. Only on the two occasions when the Games were contested on American soil -- 1960 and 1980 -- did red-clad, Russian-dominated sides fail to return home with gold.
There have been four Olympic tournaments since 1992, and Russia hasn't won gold in any of them. What's more, despite icing some of the most talented lineups ever assembled, Russia often has failed spectacularly at the most pivotal moments.
Yet another frighteningly-skilled Russian team descends upon an Olympic hockey tournament this week when Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Co. open pool play Tuesday against Latvia, one of the former Soviet Socialist republics that gained independence in the early 1990s.
Will this be the assemblage that proves Russian Olympic glory was not ultimately dependent upon keeping its players together 11 months of every year and rendering the country's club hockey league a coronation rather than a competition by stacking the Red Army team that would dominate the national team roster -- if not the compliance of North American sides sending college kids and juniors?
Though some might argue the greatest international goaltender of all time is Russian legend Vladislav Tretiak, the country never has been known as a cradle of goalies. And though Russia's top two targets bring eye-popping NHL numbers into this tournament, who knows whether goaltending will be a strength, weakness or non-factor (because of overwhelming offensive support) at these Games?
Evgeni Nabokov is having another stellar regular season for the San Jose Sharks. But he is at least a partial owner of the club's recent inability to perform up to expectations under the pressure of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Leading the NHL in victories, he is on pace for a third straight 40-win season, and he ranks in the top five in goals-against average. But he stopped just 89 percent of the shots he faced in last spring's first-round playoffs flame-out.
Ilya Bryzgalov is enjoying a break-out season -- as is the entire Phoenix Coyotes organization. And if NHL playoffs pedigree is an important criterion, he might just be the man who gets the nod come medal-round play. Fourth in the NHL in wins and eighth in GAA this season, Bryzgalov's limited playoff history (all with Anaheim) is glittering: a 9-5 record, 1.68 GAA, .937 save percentage.
This group, though the least star-studded on the dazzling roster, has the ingredients to put Russia over the top. It undoubtedly will be called upon to perform, because Russia's top forwards aren't exactly renowned for tracking back into their own zone with as much gusto as they pursue the puck in the enemy end.
Sergei Gonchar of the Penguins remains an elite puck-mover and power-play quarterback. Montreal's Andrei Markov also can run a productive point and plays the entire game over the entire ice surface. Few NHL players block shots with the abandon and effectiveness of Ottawa's Anton Volchenkov. And Fedor Tyutin of Columbus and Denis Grebeshkov of Edmonton won't be intimidated when a Crosby or Kane or Jagr come at them.
But this group isn't nearly as deep as Canada's blue-line corps, so an injury to a top-four D-man -- particularly Gonchar -- could prove devastating. Three KHL players fill out the eight-man group. None are youngsters who figure to star in the NHL.
Both frightening, in terms of their top-end talent, and confounding, in terms of the composition of their third and fourth lines, the Russian forwards might be the most intriguing group of players to watch in the entire Olympic tournament.
No other national team -- not even Canada -- can come at opponents with the terrifying likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Semin. That group comprises four of the top 16 players on the NHL's current points list and three of the League's top eight goal-scorers. The notion of Datsyuk and Malkin centering any two of the other three could mean Russian hockey games will include more mind-boggling tricks than anything the Flying Tomato and his friends can concoct on the half-pipe.
That these Games will be played on the cozier NHL-size ice surface might at first seem like a reason for opposing defensemen to breathe easier. In reality, though, nobody relishes physical contact like Ovechkin. Who stickhandles in a phone booth better than Datsyuk? Are there many stronger-on-the-puck players in the world than Malkin, Kovalchuk and Semin? And when was the last time any of them was intimidated?
Depending upon what former Soviet star forward and Team Russia coach Viacheslav Bykov wants to do when he gets a power play, enemy penalty-killers could well line up against Gonchar and four of those five forwards. NBC had better have its cameramen ready and its replay machines rolling. This could get ridiculous.
But then, ridiculous also could be a word to describe the decision to fill out the roster with six forwards from the KHL -- leaving the likes of Ottawa's Alexei Kovalev off the team. Granted, Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov, Alexei Morozov and Alexander Radulov all have NHL experience, but Fedorov turned 40 in December and none of the others would be top-six forwards in the world's top hockey league today.
Bykov, who coaches Salavat Yulaev in the KHL, has chosen three forwards who play for him every day -- Kozlov, Radulov and Sergei Zinoviev. Perhaps he has a comfort level with that trio that can translate into the kind of reliable, second-tier performance that could be the difference between the first Russian gold since 1992 and yet another Olympiad in which this nation's team proves to be less than the sum of its talented parts.
Has there been a more compelling player in the NHL this season than Alex Ovechkin?
Can Russia win without him being the most compelling player in the Olympics?
"Alexander the Great" led Russia with 5 goals in the 2006 Torino Games. But he and the rest of his club were shut down by Finland in the semifinals -- a 4-0 whitewash -- and failed to show against the Czech Republic -- a 3-0 loss -- in the bronze medal game. Fedorov is the elder statesman. Datsyuk has won Stanley Cups. But this is Ovechkin's time and Ovechkin's team. A newly-minted captain of the Washington Capitals, he must lead Team Russia as well.
Striking it rich
It is long past time Russia got its swagger back. Gone are the days when the Iron Curtain provided mystery and uneven amateur rules provided the advantage that left many opponents beaten before they even lined up against Russian players. From the drop of the puck Tuesday against Latvia -- the only seeming mismatch in the rugged Group B -- Ovechkin and Co. must put the hammer down. Finishing behind either Czech Republic or Slovakia won't mean elimination, but it will mean uncertainty going into the medal round. History says the Russians are much better when they're certain they're the best team -- the way they once were heading into 10 straight Olympics.
Author: John Dellapina | Special to NHL.com