2014 Olympic Preview: Can Russia Skate to Glory on Home Ice?

Ilya Kovalchuk (syume/Flickr)

Ilya Kovalchuk just scored three goals in the time it took you to read this caption. (syume/Flickr)

Past Previews: Team Finland         Team Czech Republic              Team Sweden

The last time Russia had the Olympic games it was summer, the height of the cold war, and no one wanted to go to Russia. More than three decades later, they are getting the Olympics again, and no event will match the attention given to hockey. The Russians adore their hockey, and the nation’s best athletes usually flock to the sport. In Sochi 2014, Russia is certain to ice an incredibly talented team, with more than enough motivation in front of rabid home crowds to bring home the gold medal.

Goaltending

Starter: Ilya Bryzgalov

Back-Up 1: Evgeni Nabokov

Back-Up 2: Nikolai Khabibulin

There is no questioning Bryzgalov’s immense talent as a professional netminder, but his eccentric personality is often blamed for lapses in concentration which lead to soft goals against him. Last year, he was often a disaster between the pipes for his Philadelphia Flyers, and as a result became a common object of fan ire. This season, however, Ilya has turned his game around completely, playing like perhaps the most valuable player on a team which often struggles on the ice in front of him.

Backing up Bryzgalov will be Nabokov, who will be 37 at the outset of the Olympics put has still shown he has a great deal left in the tank, fending off scores of shots behind an often porous New York Islanders’ defense. Khabibulin is approaching the end of a fine career at 40 years old, but will be a valuable veteran voice in the locker room and is the one active Russian goaltender with a Stanley Cup ring as a starter.

Yet goaltending remains the biggest question facing the Russians in Sochi. If Bryzgalov plays well, the Russians might be well nigh unstoppable on home ice. If he struggles, they could find themselves on the outside looking in during the medal round. Can the mercurial star raise his game and play comparably to world-class puck-stoppers like Lundqvist, Quick and Rinne?

Grade: D+

Andrei Markov

Healthy again, Markov’s shot from the point very nearly qualifies as a super power. (Icon SMI)

Defensemen

D1: Andrei Markov – Dmitri Kulikov

D2: Slava Voynov – Fedor Tyutin

D3: Sergei Gonchar – Anton Volchenkov

Spare: Alexei Emelin

Markov was an elite defenseman in the NHL before a series of injuries derailed him over the past half-decade. Finally healthy again, his defensive acumen and howitzer blast from the point are one of the biggest reasons his Montreal Canadiens have shocked the naysayers by vying for the top of the Eastern Conference. Kulikov is often unnoticed in Florida, but the huge rearguard is also a fluid skater, displaying blossoming offensive skills while taking care of business in his own end.

Voynov has simply been the best defenseman on the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings this year despite the presence of the more-heralded Drew Doughty on the same blueline. Fedor Tyutin is another very good two-way defenseman skating for a very bad team not many fans get to see on television. The Columbus rearguard’s size and skating acumen will make him a solid match for the more offensive-minded Voynov.

Gonchar and Volchenkov are not the perennial all-stars they were in younger days, but Gonchar still offers a ton of offense with his rifle point shot and Volchenkov’s smarts and physicality were always on display in the defensive zone during the New Jersey Devils’ Stanley Cup playoff run last spring. This solid but mostly unspectacular unit will be spelled ably by Emelin, a big body who is emerging as an outstanding physical defenseman for Montreal.

Grade: C+

Forwards

1st Line: C Evgeni Malkin – LW Ilya Kovalchuk – RW Alex Radulov

2nd Line: C Pavel Datsyuk (Captain) – LW Alex Ovechkin – RW Alex Semin

3rd Line: C Evgeny Kuznetsov – LW Vladimir Tarasenko – RW Nail Yakupov

Checking Line: C Artem Anisimov – LW Nikolai Kulemin – RW Nikolai Antropov

Spares: C/LW Andrei Loktionov, RW/LW Sergei Mozyakin

Will the real Alex Ovechkin please stand up?

The otherworldly skill of the Russians’ top two lines will be difficult for any team aside from perhaps Canada to match. If Sidney Crosby is the best player on the planet, Malkin is a close second. His skating, shot, hockey sense, size and drive are all top-notch, and he will be surrounded by wingers who can match his talents. Kovalchuk might be the best pure athlete in the NHL, the best forward by far in last year’s Eastern Conference playoffs despite playing with a herniated disk in his back. Kovy’s slap-shot is unreal, and the remarkable improvements of his passing and defensive play since joining New Jersey make him among the finest all-around players in the NHL. Radulov has dominated Russia’s KHL for years after a cup of coffee with Nashville in the NHL. A terrific stickhandler and offensive weapon, Radulov will complete perhaps the most talented line in the tournament.

Pavel Datsyuk Red Wings

Datsyuk may be the only Russian in the NHL who for some reason doesn’t get unjustly criticized by Don Cherry and Pierre McGuire. (Icon SMI)

Datsyuk is quite simply a magician on skates, a truly sublime passer and stickhandler and a top-10 player in the world. On his left will be Ovechkin, who was once considered by many the top player in the world, before baffling inconsistency has dimmed his star in recent seasons. The Russians will need Ovechkin to return to prior status as an impact player if they hope to come away with the gold. Skating with them on a formidable second scoring unit will be Semin, Ovechkin’s old line-mate in Washington, and a lethal sniper in his own right.

On the third line, the Russians can unleash a trio of future MVP candidates on the world. A Washington prospect playing in the KHL, Kuznetsov is a big, rangy and incredibly skilled center considered by many to be the best player in the world outside the NHL. Tarasenko is a human highlight film and Rookie of the Year candidate for St. Louis. Last year’s first overall draft pick in the NHL, Yakupov might be the best offensive talent drafted into the league since Steven Stamkos.

The Russians can ice a trio of big bodies with speed to spare in a checking line of Anisimov, Kulemin and Antropov. All three have a ton of NHL experience and can also pack an offensive punch. Coming off the bench, Loktionov is an emerging and versatile NHL talent while Mozyakin is a mainstay on the KHL scoing leaders, winning three titles in the past four seasons.

Grade: A

Why I Left Them Off/Put Them On:

Quite simply, many players we think of as Russian are actually not. Dainius Zubrus is Lithuanian, Sergei Kostitsyn is Belarussian. Both would have easily made the team if they had Russian eligibility.

Prediction: 2nd Place, Silver Medal

Admittedly, the Russians will not be impossible to score against, with an average blueline and goaltending tandem. Still, they have tons of skill and speed on the forward units, a star-studded stable of players accustomed to playing on the larger Olympic ice surface. Their best players are also proven big-game players: Malkin, Datsyuk, Kovalchuk — all passionate and electric talents who should shine in front of rabid, home crowds. I expect the Russians to lead the Olympic tournament in goals scored and find themselves in the gold medal game with an excellent chance of winning it all at Sochi.

 

 

Steven Ives

Steven Ives

Writer/lunatic, hockey columnist, mlb.com, aspiring cryptozoologist, estrogen addict, patron saint of vertigo, unintentional ghost hunter. Brooklyn, New York
Steven Ives
LOOK: Jaromir Jagr lookalikes return to cheer on hero in Edmonton http://t.co/aZ3JRE0RgM via @cbssports - 23 hours ago

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