Now or never for Russia

Desperate for return of old glory, host country feels pressure

29.01.2014
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Dangerous troika: Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeni Malkin celebrate a goal at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

MOSCOW – There is a lot of excitement in Russia as the home-held Olympics approach. Do not confuse the word “excitement” with “optimism”, though.

With 22 years gone since the last Olympic gold and only a measly silver and bronze to show since the country began competing under the Russian tricolour, optimism takes a distant second to cynicism in the competition for Russia’s most ubiquitous hockey emotion.

The home of the “Big Red Machine” has gotten so used, so addicted in fact, to gold during the Soviet era that the last two decades have been nothing less than depressing for the proud hockey giant when it comes to results in the Olympics.

What do you call excitement sans optimism? Let’s call it anxiety. And pressure. An enormous pressure to deliver the goods to a gold-starved, hockey-mad nation who will consider the Games a failure otherwise.

“I can tell you for sure that the Olympics aren’t at all about fun,” says Yevgeni Malkin, also known as one of the best players on the planet. “In Turin, even though I knew that I was only 19 and wouldn’t get a huge amount of ice time, I couldn’t get any sleep the first night in the Olympic Village. I just lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling, thinking about how I would play. I don’t know how it will be in Sochi but there will certainly be plenty of stress, considering we are playing at home.”

Pavel Datsyuk, whose hands can be officially certified as magic, and who will be playing in his fourth Olympics, is even blunter.

“The pressure is enormous and it’s growing every day,” says Datsyuk, dropping his usual semi-serious manner. “Everyone is expecting only one thing from us. And we won’t have the right to make an error.”

Stress is what the whole country will be feeling once the puck is dropped in Sochi. But, to be sure, there are some things to be both excited and optimistic about, if you are a Russian fan.

Nobody would ever dispute the goal-scoring prowess of the home team’s offence. Alexander Ovechkin is leaving a burning trail behind him in the NHL rinks and will almost certainly win yet another Rocket Richard Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goal-scorer.

Ovechkin in the face-off circle, which the Washington Capitals fans refer to as “the Ovi Spot”, with his stick drawn back for a monstrous slap shot, is one of the scariest sights in the world to any defenceman or goaltender.

“If Ovechkin is in top shape, there is no need to even put our skates on. He’ll just jump out and tear everyone apart,” says Malkin, whose gift for dry humour is quite underrated by the Western media. “As a matter of fact, it doesn’t matter what shape he is in. He’ll just drink a couple of cans of coke and will run around like he just got scalded or something.”

The first two offensive lines for Russia are stacked with all-world talent. Centred by Malkin and Datsyuk, they will also likely feature Ilya Kovalchuk, who is currently (according to some reports) the highest-paid-after-taxes player in the world. And Alexander Radulov, one of the KHL’s biggest and flashiest stars, whose style of play is perfectly suited to the big ice. The sublimely talented Alexander Syomin, a late addition to the roster, has great chemistry with Ovechkin and is one of the best stickhandlers in the world.

There is no question that, with their top guns on the ice, the Russians can outscore anyone in any amount of exciting ways. It’s what happens when those top guns become, as they will, the focus of attention of the world’s best defensive players, that raises concerns. Russia’s secondary scoring is nowhere close to that of Canada and Sweden, and head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov will look to his fourth line to play a purely defensive function and hope that youngsters Vladimir Tarasenko and Valeri Nichushkin, who are having great seasons in the NHL, can pick up the slack offensively.

Defence is a traditional problem for Russia, and once you get past the perennial NHL All-Star Andrei Markov and one of the league’s best puck-movers Vyacheslav Voinov, there isn’t all that much on the roster to strike fear into the hearts of the Sidney Crosbys and Henrik Zetterbergs of this world.

Still, there is the “designated hitter” Alexei Yemelin, who has the body-checking ability not seen in Russia since Darius Kasparaitis.

“(Being physical in defence) is extremely important,” says Yemelin. “Canada is a physical team which will play very tough hockey regardless of the rink size. Anyone facing them must be able to take the punch and at least be able to pay back with the same coin.”

That’s something Yemelin can do, but should the rest of the defence prove inadequate, it will be up to the goaltender to give the team a chance to win. Luckily, Russia is well-stocked in that regard, featuring the reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovski and Semyon Varlamov, who led the team to the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold. Both are playing spectacularly well in the NHL right now, and at least in this area Russia’s depth is actually at least as good as that of its main rivals.

Will flashy star power and solid goaltending be enough for Russia to end its two decades of disappointments? Let’s not forget the home-ice advantage. With the North Americans’ well-documented struggles away from the home continent and the buckets of love Russian fans are ready to upend over their boys, this factor may indeed prove decisive in the end.

In the words of Malkin, “the time has come to win it all. This is our moment!”

Projected Result:

Obviously, nothing but gold will suffice, and the home-ice advantage gives Russia as big of a chance as at any time during the post-Soviet era. But the short bench on offence and the defensive problems will make it a difficult task. Silver or bronze are a little bit more likely. Not medalling at all for the third time in a row will be a national disaster and its consequences best not even be contemplated.

Top-3 Players:

Alexander Ovechkin. Nobody in hockey world packs more star power and nobody is as adept in putting the puck in the net. Alexander the Great will need to score in bunches for Russia to be a gold-medal contender.

Pavel Datsyuk. The stickhandling, head-faking, nifty-passing wizard is just as good without the puck, and his neutral-zone defensive play will be crucial.

Yevgeni Malkin. One of the best players in the world, and capable of raising linemates to his lofty level.

Dark Horse:

Alexander Syomin. Initially left out of the lineup due to poor numbers this season and being a defensive liability, the Carolina Hurricanes star will go to Sochi as an injury replacement. While Syomin’s talent is unquestionable, his dedication isn’t. If he brings his A game to the Olympics, Russia’s already powerful offence will be downright scary.

SLAVA MALAMUD

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