Heading into what might be the last blast of good hockey for quite some time, there is no team more in flux than Team Russia.
With a new coach, and a roster rife with perceived in-fighting, the Russians could very well be the most talented team in the whole tournament. In the '96 World Cup, Russia advanced to the 2nd round and beat Finland 5-0, despite finishing the opening round with a 1-2 record.
That victory set up a 3rd-round match with the Americans for a trip to the Finals. Unfortunately for hockey fans, the Russians were no match for Team USA, and were soundly beaten 5-2. That eliminated any chance for a Canada/Russia Final, and left the Russians out of the tournament with a 2-and-3 record.
This time around, Russia will need to rely on what might be the best collection of forwards among all eight teams. Anytime you can send names like Fedorov, Kovalchuk, Yashin, and Kovalev over the boards, you've got a chance to win and that's before mentioning soon-to-be superstar Alexander Ovechkin, and budding superstar Pavel Datsyuk.
|Ovechkin is one of the many talented Russian forwards. |
Sergei Fedorov has been one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL for many years and, even though he has changed his address from Hockeytown to Disneyland, he's still one of the premier players in the league.
Ilya Kovalchuk has established himself as one of the elite goal scorers in the NHL after only three seasons in the league.
Kovalchuk scored 29 goals and added 22 assists in his first season and hasn't looked back since. He scored 38 the following year and added 41 this past season for a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy.
For Alexei Yashin, the NHL road has been a bumpy one off the ice, but that in no way takes away from what he has accomplished on the ice. Six times he has topped the 30-goal mark. Twice he has scored 40 or more and in 1999 he was a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP.
Alexei Kovalev has been a scoring machine in the NHL since he was selected 15th overall in 1991 by the Rangers. In his 13 years in the league, Kovalev has scored 20 or more goals nine different times and his 21 points in 23 games were a big reason the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994.
NHL scouts have been drooling over Alexander Ovechkin for many years now, and he will finally get a chance to show his skills to the world in this tournament. At 6'2" and 200 lbs, many have likened the 18-year old, 1st overall pick to the only other Russian to go first overall - Ilya Kovalchuk.
The difference is, Ovechkin's all-around game is miles ahead of Kovalchuk already, and will only improve with teaching and time.
As if they needed more talent up front, Viktor Kozlov, Sergei Samsonov and Alexei Zhamnov also made the team. But, and it's a huge BUT ... there are two gaping holes in the Russian net thanks to two of the best backstops in the world being unavailable.
Nikolai Khabibulin carried the Bolts to a Cup, but has said "nyet" to his country's call, while Evgeni Nabokov had off-season knee surgery and will not be ready in time.
Therefore, a lot of pressure will be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Russian defence corps which includes the skill of Sergei Gonchar and Oleg Tverdovsky, the punch of Danny Markov and Anton Volchenkov, and the unknown of the always intense Darius Kasparitis.
Russia has been a dominant force on the international stage for many years and, with plenty of players from their 2002 Olympic roster and a few from the 96 World Cup roster returning for this tournament, they will have a good team. However, without all-world goaltending, it will take a bit of luck and all the skill they have ON PAPER, to show up ON THE ICE.