There is no nation in the upcoming Olympic men’s hockey tournament with as much pressure on it as Team Russia.
Not only are they the host nation, but the intense disappointment of an embarrassing quarter-final rout at the hands of the Canadians in Vancouver 2010 will still be fresh in the minds of a core that remains. That being said, Russians are very passionate and will be behind head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s group from the start – yet the media pressure cooker will be just as intense as it was for Canada four years ago.
Here is a breakdown of what can be expected for Team Russia at the Sochi Olympics, by position.
In a word: loaded.
The Russians look to be stacked with more dynamic offensive talent up front than any other nation and contending with that speed, explosiveness and power will be a tough task for anyone.
Compounding their talent is the fact that over the past few years since the 2010 Games, most Russian stars have played together for their country at every available tournament, with an eye to winning this event.
Beginning with reigning Hart and Rocket Richard Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, Bilyaletdinov could send out a first line that also includes Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk – try stopping that.
Not to be outdone, a second unit involving Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin and Alexander Radulov will not be fun to deal with either as the latter is of elite National Hockey League calibre, electing to stay and play at home in the KHL.
Budding stars Nail Yakupov, Vladimir Tarasenko and Yevgeni Kuznetsov should comprise the third unit, one as dangerous as any first-line in the tournament.
Finally, Nikolai Kulemin and the rapidly improving Artem Anisimov provide a solid NHL fourth line to match up against anybody in the tournament.
Traditionally the weakest part of Russian national teams, and while there may be a dearth of household names in North American circles, there is still plenty of quality here.
Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov return as solid, puck-moving veterans that had resurgences last season, and if healthy should still anchor the Russian blueline.
Los Angeles Kings defender Slava Voynov has blossomed and will add another exceptional, two-way piece along with the always dependable presence of Anton Volchenkov.
Domestic additions include an all Ak Bars Kazan pairing of Ilya Nikulin and the rapidly improving two-way dynamo of Evgeni Medvedev – both of whom were extremely effective at the most recent World hockey Championship (at which the former served as team captain).
Overall, the Russians have a strong blend of dependability and puck-moving acumen, although the depth to capably deal with the elite nations will still be in question until they prove it themselves. Nevertheless, the unit appears a strong improvement over four years ago.
The Russian goaltending situation looks to be as stable as it has been for years. Sergei Bobrovsky was miles better than he was expected to be for the Columbus Blue Jackets last season – especially in the second half – and he is likely already penciled in as the host nations’ number one.
Evgeni Nabokov was superb down the stretch for the New York Islanders last season, helping them into the playoffs, and his experience (although he has never been outstanding for Russia) should be helpful for the young Bobrovsky.
Semyon Varlamov is a possible third-stringer, though Konstantin Barulin has been excellent in years past for Russian national teams.