RUSSIA vs. SLOVENIA
When: Thursday, 4:30 a.m. PT (MSNBC, CBC) - FULL SOCHI SCHEDULE
Where: Bolshoy Ice Dome
What's at stake: Carrying the weight of the world, the wait of an entire country will end when the home team makes its 2014 Sochi Olympics debut against one making its first Olympic appearance. Russia, a nation of approximately 144 million people with 2,800 men's hockey players, takes on Slovenia, a nation of approximately 2 million with 148 male players, in Group A.
"This is a very important game," Russia coach Zinetula Bilyaletinov said. "It doesn't matter who the competitor is, in any case we'll have to prepare. This is the first game so we have to be ready. That's it."
Russia: The glamour contingent of these games finally gets a chance to compete. Expect the offensively gifted team to try to put on a show in its debut.
Captain Pavel Datsyuk will play after arriving with a lower-body injury that caused him to miss a month's worth of games for the Detroit Red Wings and the opening practice in Sochi. One of 16 NHL players on the roster, he worked on a power-play unit Wednesday which included Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals) and Ilya Kovalchuk.
"Right now, I play for my country at home, and this is another crazy moment," Ovechkin said Tuesday. "I'm pretty sure you can ask any Canadian guy, 'What's the biggest moment for them when they play for national team?' Of course, it's home Olympic games. It's probably biggest moment for me."
Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche) or Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets) will start in goal.
Slovenia: Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar is the only NHL player on the roster. The team qualified for the games by defeating Belarus and Denmark without him.
"We can't control what [Russia is] going to do," Kopitar told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm sure they're going to be flying for the first game, but I think if we put up the performance that we want to put up, I think everybody's going to be surprised how well we can play."
Matjaz Kopitar, Anze's father, is the coach. David Rodman, who plays in Sweden (22 points in 29 games), scored two goals in the win that got Slovenia into the tournament. Robert Kristan (2.61 goals-against average, .912 save percentage in Slovakia) is expected to start in goal.
"It will be exciting. It's always fun to play the host country," Anze Kopitar said. "You feel like you're playing an away game. … I'm sure they've been looking forward to this day for a long, long time too. The crowd's going to be fired up and we're going to be fired up, so it should be a good match."
What's next: Russia faces the United States on Saturday in one of the most highly anticipated preliminary-round games. The winner will have the inside track to first place in Group A and a coveted bye into the quarterfinals. Slovenia plays Slovakia with the winner of that game likely grabbing third place in the group.