Russia’s Olympic hockey squad ready to take the ice

Hockey fans will see the best of the best play in Sochi – although there were a few surprises when the team was named.

After 15 goals in KHL last season some media called 18-year-old Dallas forward Valeri Nichushkin “the new Alexander Ovechkin." Source: Grigoriy Sokolov / RIA Novosti

James Ellingworth, special to RBTH

Like children expecting Santa Claus, Russian hockey players waited with bated breath this week for the big day - the announcement of the Olympic roster.

For some, like 20-year-old Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues, Tuesday’s list brought the fulfilment of a childhood dream, for others like Sergei Gonchar of the Dallas Stars, hoping for a fifth straight Olympics, it was like a lump of coal in their stockings.

Here’s what you need to know:

The stars are (almost) all there

Russia’s big names dominate the 25-man roster, giving the host team some serious demolition power. The first forward line is likely to combine Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeny Malkin with Washington Capitals wing Alex Ovechkin, bringing together two of the toughest NHL players of modern times.

Swapping them out for a second line boasting Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk will hardly lessen the pace, considering those two have 1,583 career NHL points between them. Quite simply, these guys can overwhelm the opposition.

“I think [reigning Olympic champion] Canada's forwards are probably deeper but the first two [Russian] lines are as good - if not more offensively talented - than Canada's,” Canadian hockey expert Mike Ambrogio told RBTH. “Any team with Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk and Kovalchuk will be dangerous, especially on the power play.”

Amid all that talent, one famous name has failed to make the roster, the notoriously hard-to-handle (on and off the ice) Carolina Hurricanes wing Alexander Semin, the only Russian top-six NHL forward to be left out.

Also in the cold is Edmonton Oilers wing Nail Yakupov, who is steadily building a Semin-like reputation for feuds with team management, even at the tender age of 20. Is this a message from Russia coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov - no troublemakers allowed?

There’s a Cold War clash brewing

It’s been 34 years since the United States stunned the Soviet Union in the Miracle on Ice at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980. That one game will always define the Russia-U.S. rivalry, but at least one more chapter will be added in Sochi.

Russia and the U.S. have been drawn together in the opening pool stage of the Olympics and will face off Feb. 15 in Sochi’s Bolshoy Ice Dome, likely in front of a raucous home crowd.

To add extra spice, the U.S. humiliated the Russians with a surprise 8-3 pounding in the quarterfinals of last year’s world championships, something the Sochi hosts will be keen to avenge.

That may not be the most reliable form guide, however. The Russians didn’t have Malkin, Kovalchuk or Datsyuk on that occasion, but the U.S. hardly seemed like world champions either, with a young roster.

The other two teams in the pool are the similarly named Slovakia, home of Boston Bruins bruiser Zdeno Chara and a strong talent pool, and Slovenia, home of Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar and pretty much no-one else.

There’s dissent in the ranks

Even with a month before the tournament begins, strains are beginning to show in the Russian national team.

The cause is none other than 18-year-old Dallas forward Valeri Nichushkin. The rookie phenom has been told by coach Bilyaletdinov that he “must justify” his place on the roster, which is like an “advance payment,” but general manager Alexei Yashin publicly disagrees.

But what if it’s all a clever management ploy?

“Nichuskin is a gusty pick by Russia. He is young but he has proven in the NHL with Dallas he can play with the best,” Ambrogio said.

“But I am surprised he is on the team. I don't know if it is fair for a coach to say a player has to "justify" being on this team, but the coach may feel Nichuskin is the kind of player who will be motivated by these kind of comments.”

The KHL has come of age

The NHL’s not the only game in town any more. While the Russia-based KHL is still a clear second-best in terms of quality, it’s making its presence felt on the hosts’ Olympic roster.

Of the 25 Russians on the team, 10 are from KHL clubs. That’s only one more than at the 2010 Olympics, but what’s key is who they are. Gone are the days when the KHL produced only backups and fourth-liners - ex-New Jersey Devils star Kovalchuk and former Nashville Predators star Alexander Radulov can mix it with the best.

On top of that, Dynamo Moscow goaltender Alexander Yeryomenko could be getting ice time ahead of the more illustrious NHL netminders on the roster, Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov and Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky.

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