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Russia faces intense pressure as Olympics host

by Vassili Ossipov

The 2014 Sochi Olympics will be truly special for the Russian hockey team.

It's not only because the games will take place in their homeland, where not one of 150 million fans will settle for anything less than the gold medal. The other reason is because Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and the rest of the team will be looking for revenge against their historic rivals from Canada.

The embarrassment of a quarterfinal loss at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where the hosts routed the Russians 7-3, will not be forgotten until it is avenged.

Malkin discussed the brutal loss and the opportunity for redemption in Sochi.

"Honestly, I still cannot believe what happened. I am very disappointed," he said. "Canada was very motivated to prove to the world that they are the best when it comes to hockey. And that was exactly what they did. We have to learn from them in all aspects: coaching, scouting, management. And we should not consider it embarrassing. Otherwise, we won't stand a chance of competing and winning at the highest level. We all have to prove in Sochi in front of our fans that the disaster in Vancouver was nothing but an accident."

It's hard to imagine, but Russia has not won Olympic gold for more than 20 years, since the United Team did it in at the 1992 Albertville Olympics. Five tournaments have taken place since. Anything but first place in the Sochi Games will be deemed a major fiasco.

With pressure coming from all angles, assembling the roster is extremely important. What is the right balance between NHL stars and Kontinental Hockey League players, who are more comfortable playing on European-size rinks? How can they create the most productive lines? Who will be the first choice in net? Let's take a look at what the final Olympic roster for Russia may look like.

Alex Ovechkin Pavel Datsyuk Alexander Semin
Ilya Kovalchuk Evgeni Malkin Alexander Radulov
Nikolai Kulemin Artem Anisimov Vladimir Tarasenko
Viktor Tikhonov Alexei Tereschenko Evgeny Kuznetsov
Nail Yakupov Alexander Perezhogin

It will be difficult for the coaches to determine who will center the first line. Malkin and Datsyuk are tremendous hockey players who can create scoring opportunities for themselves or their teammates out of almost nothing. Each is having a great season so far.

Most likely the first-line choice will be given to the Detroit Red Wings' Datsyuk, who will team up with Washington Capitals scoring machine Ovechkin and his former teammate Semin, who most likely will come back from a concussion to play for the Carolina Hurricanes before February. This line has spent a lot of time together, including at the Vancouver Olympics four years ago.

Evgeni Malkin
Center - PIT
AGE: 27
BIRTHPLACE: Magnitogorsk, Russia
Malkin will likely center the two most recognizable stars of the KHL, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov. Malkin and Kovalchuk recently had extended goal droughts with their professional teams. Malkin went a career-long 15 games without a goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Kovalchuk hasn't scored in six games for SKA St. Petersburg. Putting them on the same line could create necessary chemistry and boost scoring for Russia.

The third and fourth lines will most likely be formed with players from the same leagues. The "NHL line" will be centered by the Columbus Blue Jackets' Artem Anisimov, who is having a solid season and most importantly has improved his defensive skills.

The "KHL line" will feature young star Evgeny Kuznetsov, a first-round pick (No. 26) by the Capitals at the 2010 NHL Draft. He recently came back from an injury, and if he manages to stay healthy, Kuznetsov could be a powerful force in February.

Despite a rough start to the 2013-14 season, do not count out Edmonton Oilers forward Nail Yakupov, who possesses enough talent to make an impact in Sochi.

Andrei Markov Alexei Emelin
Sergei Gonchar Slava Voynov
Ilya Nikulin Evgeny Medvedev
Nikita Nikitin Fedor Tyutin

Russia's first pair of defensemen will most likely be the Montreal Canadiens' duo of Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov. They know each other well and would make a balanced pair. Emelin is a physical player; Markov is more of a playmaker. The only concern for them is staying healthy, as both have been injury prone.

Andrei Markov
Defense - MTL
AGE: 34
BIRTHPLACE: Voskresensk, Russia
Slava Voynov has made the most progress among young Russian defensemen in the past couple seasons, becoming one of the key blueliners for the Los Angeles Kings. He is normally on the ice when the team is shorthanded or on the power play, which says a lot about how much the coaching staff trusts him. He possesses tremendous speed and a thunderous slap shot. He has a good chance to become a star in his home country with a strong showing in Sochi.

Right now, it is hard to tell which pair of defensemen will be the Russian coaching staff's third choice. Both duos play together for their teams, Ilya Nikulin and Evgeny Medvedev with Ak Bars Kazan and Nikita Nikitin and Fedor Tyutin with the Columbus Blue Jackets. As with the forwards, the key factor may be experience with larger rinks, which would favor the Nikulin-Medvedev tandem.

Semyon Varlamov
Sergei Bobrovsky
Alexander Eremenko

Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov has the best chance to become Russia's starting goaltender. Despite his pending legal issues, Varlamov continues to be extremely consistent this season. The addition of the legendary Patrick Roy as head coach and one of the best goaltending coaches in the history of the game, Francois Allaire, by the Avalanche has helped Varlamov's confidence and propelled his game to a new level.

Sergei Bobrovsky
Goalie - CBJ
AGE: 25
BIRTHPLACE: Novokuznetsk, RUS
The 2013 Vezina Trophy winner, Sergei Bobrovsky, has not had a particularly impressive season so far. The Columbus goalie has not been as consistent as he was last year. There is still time for him to improve, but so far it looks like Russia's coaching staff will go with Varlamov as the starting goalie.

With the New York Islanders' Evgeni Nabokov out with an injury, the third spot on the roster is up for grabs and may be awarded to Dynamo Moscow goalie Alexander Eremenko, who has had an almost flawless couple of months.


Eighteen-year-old gem Valeri Nichushkin of the Dallas Stars is progressing rapidly, and with his quick hands and great skating ability, he is certain to earn some consideration. Vadim Schipachev, a teammate of Kovalchuk and Viktor Tikhonov at SKA, has seven goals and 19 points in 29 games and remains a candidate as well.

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Anton Belov and Anton Volchenkov of the New Jersey Devils could give Russia added physical presence on the blue line. Belov is racking up more ice time and becoming one of the key players for his team. Volchenkov has a long history with Russia and his experience competing at the higher levels can certainly help.

If Nabokov recovers from his groin injury in time to get enough practice before the Olympics, he can still make the roster. He has had a couple of solid years for the Islanders, and despite being 38 years old, Nabokov is still a world-class goalie. Konstantin Barulin of Ak Bars is having a decent year and his experience would also be helpful should any of the other goaltending candidates get injured.

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