COLOGNE – Pretty much every Russian who could be in Germany is here. A sixth place finish nine weeks ago at the Olympics will do that to a nation. But with a roster that towers above all others, can Russia deliver the goods and win World Championship gold for a third straight year?
For the second straight year, Semyon Varlamov was the backup goalie for Washington to start the NHL playoffs, and for the second straight year he quickly ascended the throne when not-so Saint-like Jose Theodore faltered. Both last year and this, though, it wasn’t enough for the Capitals, so Russia benefits by having a world-class goalie in the nets. The others are Alexander Eremenko and Vasili Koshechkin.
The corps of the blue line is led by Dmitri Kalinin, Ilya Nikulin, Denis Grebeshkov, and Konstantin Korneyev. All played for their country in Vancouver. They are a fast group who can move the puck up ice and keep opponents to the outside in the offensive end. Nikulin has played at every tournament since the 2006 World Championship, and this is Kalinin’s seventh WM dating back to 2002.
The names on this list are wall to wall impressive. Start with Alexander Ovechkin, continue with Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Semin, and finish with Maxim Afinogenov and Sergei Fedorov, at 40 the oldest player on the team. These are all spectacular players when they play within the framework of a team, as they did in 2008 and 2009, and as they didn’t at the Vancouver Olympics where they resorted to individual play.
Slava Bykov led the team to those two gold medals in 2008 and ’09, and he was also the coach in Vancouver who was unable to get the team playing as a group. His leadership is essential to the team’s success. If fans see one of their great stars try to deke through the whole team or make an end-to-end rush every time they have the puck, they’re in deep trouble.
With this lineup, anything short of playing in the gold-medal game would be a shock. Given the inexperience or lack of star power on the other “Big Seven” nations, Russia is absolutely the team to beat. In fact, maybe the only team that can beat them is themselves.