COLOGNE – Russia has the strongest roster in the tournament, there’s no doubt about that. The team that has a Evgeni Malkin, a Conn Smythe Trophy winner, a two-time Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin, a two-time Selke Trophy winner Pavel Datsyuk next to Ilya Kovalchuk, Sergei Gonchar, and Sergei Fedorov, who’s won most of the things you can win in hockey, is obviously a favourite.
When Maxim Afinogenov finds himself in the fourth line, the depth on the team is good.
Often, though, the team with the superstar-laden roster has a hard time catering to everybody’s needs, there are quarrels about the ice time, and every big star wants to upstage the other. Result: chaos.
But this Russian team hasn’t had that problem. They haven’t cruised to the final, Germany pushed them for 58 minutes, but they haven’t come undone, either.
“We’re close to reaching the goal, but we’re not there yet,” assistant coach Igor Zakharkin says.
Maybe the pact (to come here and win) that they reportedly made after the quarterfinal loss in the Olympics is so strong. Maybe their passion to win for Russia makes them focus on winning, or maybe it’s just a group of guys who’ve come together as a team.
“The team spirit is our strength. All the guys here understand that we failed at the Olympics and they want their revenge,” says assistant coach Igor Zakharkin.
“Everybody’s happy and pleased with what we have accomplished so far but our goal is to win the tournament. Everybody’s working for each other, and they all want to give their best, and show their best side,” he adds.
With long-time captain Alexei Morozov out of the tournament, the coaches made Ilya Kovalchuk the team’s captain. The 27-year-old forward has answered the call, leading the tournament in scoring, and showing emotion on the ice.
“When you see so many fans in the stands cheering for us, we have to show up and play our game,” Kovalchuk, the team captain, said earlier in the tournament.
“Kovalchuk and Datsyuk are our leaders, then we have Ovechkin and Fedorov,” Zakharkin says, and keeps rattling off more names.
“The dressing room is a calm and good place. Well, maybe the younger guys like Ovechkin and Alexander Semin are a bit livelier,” he adds, and smiles.
According to defenceman Denis Grebeshkov, the coaching staff is also a big part of the team spirit. Russian practices, too, seem to be happy places. The players are laughing and joking with each other. Coach Vyacheslav Bykov is often seen playing shinny with the boys.
“That’s a big change since Bykov was named head coach. He’s changed the atmosphere and that’s why players like him and why they want to play for the Russian national team,” Grebeshkov says.
Often, coaches like to create visual metaphors for the team, whether a tournament is a pyramid they have to climb, or a castle they have to build. Other times teams have themes. Coach Zakharkin says they don’t have one, except for one age-old hockey truth.
“One game at a time, it’s that simple,” he says.
And now, there is only one game to go. That, too, is simple.