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New captain Kovalchuk thaws cold war

by Brad Holland
For the second time in less than a year, Ilya Kovalchuk has helped put Team Russia in position to win a major international tournament.

In his first performance, Kovalchuk scored the game-tying and gold-medal-winning goals (the second two minutes into overtime), leading Russia past rival Canada in the 2008 World Championships.

His encore performance was completed only weeks ago, roughly a year ahead of schedule for Vancouver 2010. The young forward reportedly brokered a peace treaty between countrymen Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovehckin in the weeks leading up to the NHL All-Star Game in Montreal, thereby healing a rift many predicted would tear the Russians apart.

In typical hockey-player fashion, Kovalchuk downplayed his role in the peacemaking, but rumors of his involvement go far beyond what little he said to the media in Montreal.

"Hockey is a physical sport, and they just play the game the right way," Kovalchuk told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the Honda SuperSkills, in which Malkin aided Ovechkin in winning the 2009 Scotiabank NHL Breakaway Challenge. "When they're just in regular life, they're good buddies. We are all from Russia, so it's all good."

That sort of contribution can't be overlooked or underestimated, as Kovalchuk almost single-handedly solving the most pressing problem facing the Russians' gold-medal hopes.

It may seem odd to think of Kovalchuk as a source of wisdom and maturity, as he was drafted only in 2002 and is still four years shy of his 30th birthday. But the young scorer has been maturing as a leader during his time in Atlanta, a fact not lost on the Thrashers' brass, who named him the seventh team captain in franchise history earlier this season.

That said, here is the Russian roster that would send to the 2010 Olympic tournament, complete with 13 forwards, seven defenders and three goaltenders.

Goaltenders: Evgeni Nabokov, Nikolai Khabibulin, Simeon Varlamov -- The way to beat the Russians in the past was to get to their goaltenders. But things have changed.

Probable starter Evgeni Nabokov has reached a comfort level in the San Jose net that has seen him play the best hockey of his career during the past two-plus seasons. He should be on top of his game come February 2010, and could very well have another trophy -- a big, silver grail -- in his collection by that time.

Nabokov is as accomplished in international play as he has been in the NHL. In his most recent international tournament, the 2008 World Championships, he backstopped his team to the gold and earned top goaltender honors while doing it. In his past 12 international games, spanning two tournaments (the 2006 Winter Olympics is the other), Nabokov is 10-2 with five shutouts and a 1.42 GAA.

Nikolai Khabibulin, on the other hand, is enjoying a renaissance year with the Chicago Blackhawks. His goals-against average of 2.42 is his lowest since 2003-04 (when he won the Stanley Cup with the Lightning), and his save percentage of .922 is his best since 1998-99.

One of the two should be the starter for Russia in 2010, but not beyond. Young Simeon Varlamov, a top-notch prospect out of Russia who started -- and won -- his first two NHL games this season, is waiting in the wings.

With Nabokov and Khabibulin in Vancouver at the pinnacles of their careers, the old maxim of "get to the goaltender" won't be much help to opposing strategists.

Defensemen: Sergei Gonchar, Andrei Markov, Fedor Tyutin, Denis Grebeshkov, Danny Markov, Anton Volchenkov, Dmitri Kalinin -- If the Russians have a slight weakness, it's on their back end. Not only will Gonchar or Andrei Markov quarterback one of the most scary-talented power-play units in recent history, the rest of this group has a wealth of skills that will make them valuable in almost any game situation.

Tyutin is currently enjoying his finest pro season and, at only 25, seems to have a very bright future ahead of him. Edmonton Oiler Denis Grebeshkov is developing nicely with 25 points through 50 games this season. And reliable defenders Danny Markov, who plays professionally in Russia, Volchenkov and Kalinin should bring a veteran calm to the group.

But the real bonus for the Russian staff is that they won't be called upon to do anything superhuman. With a talented group of Russian forwards, the defensemen just can't lose games for the team.

Forwards: Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Kovalev, Alex Frolov, Sergei Fedorov, Alex Radulov, Nikolai Zherdev, Viktor Kozlov, Evgeny Artyukhin, Artem Anisimov -- When you stack it up like that, it almost doesn't seem fair.

Malkin centering Ovechkin and Semin is scary enough, but when Line 1A changes for Datsyuk, Kovalchuk and Kovalev (Line 1B), things will start to look bad for the competition.

Malkin, Ovechkin and Datsyuk could be ranked 1-2-3 in the world and nobody would bat an eye (save perhaps, the legions of Sidney Crosby backers). Kovalchuk and Kovalev are still two of the game's greatest scorers, and would thrive with a playmaker like Datsyuk. Semin has proven he belongs in the world's elite by averaging 1.28 points per game through 38 NHL games this season.

Even a Russian "third" line of Frolov, Fedorov and Radulov could be the marquee trio of half the teams in the tournament.

Frolov and Radulov have each proven their worth both in international competition and NHL play, while Fedorov is one of the standard-bearers of the Russian team, having won a Hart Trophy, two Selke Trophies, and a Lester B. Pearson Award in his storied career.

In fact, with three World Championship gold medals (1989, 1990 and 2008), a World Junior Championship gold (1989), and three Stanley Cups (1997, 1998 and 2002), about all Fedorov is missing in his trophy case is Olympic gold -- which should provide extra motivation for the veteran center and the rest of his teammates.

A fourth line of Zherdev, Viktor Kozlov, and Artyukhin would feature prominently in some teams' overall philosophy, but on Team Russia, they are a fourth-line "energy" group, which just happens to have a combined 30 NHL goals between them this season.

As a 13th forward, the Russians' options include Artem Anisimov (54 points in 52 AHL games this season), Nikita Filatov (sixth selection of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2008) and Slava Kozlov (47 points in 56 games this season and two career Stanley Cups).

The sheer weight of talent the Russians bring to bear, coupled with that dedication to a free-ranging, high-octane offensive style, means they will enter the tournament as a group already comfortable in its makeup and identity.

Especially since the Ovechkin-Malkin honeymoon should still be on, thanks in part to captain Kovalchuk.

In a two-week tournament, that kind of chemistry can make all the difference.
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