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Russia takes aim at gold medal hat trick at Worlds

by Bill Meltzer /
Still smarting from their disappointing showing at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Team Russia will seek a measure of redemption when it goes for its third straight gold medal at the 2010 World Championships, in Cologne, Mannheim and Gelsenkirchen, Germany.

The tournament starts, as Russia faces Slovakia in the first game of the preliminary round. Russia then will play former Soviet nations Kazakhstan on Sunday and Belarus on May 13.

While the Olympics are the ultimate stage for international hockey and the NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs are the most prestigious tournament played each spring, the IIHF World Champions remain a big deal on the global hockey landscape, especially in European hockey countries. Two years ago, there was a national celebration in Russia when the national team ended a 15-year gold-medal drought at the tournament to capture its second World Championship (during the existence of the Russia-dominated USSR, the Soviet national team won 22 gold medals at the Worlds). Last year in Switzerland, Vycheslav Bykov's team repeated the feat, buoying the Russia's hopes of an Olympic gold that was not to be.

There weren't many disappointed faces around Team Russia when the Washington Capitals shockingly blew a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series and lost to the Montreal Canadiens, while the second-seeded New Jersey Devils bowed out in five games to the Philadelphia Flyers. As a result of their NHL teams' playoff eliminations, a host of key players became available to Russia for the Worlds, and all agreed to travel to Germany for the tournament.

During the recent LG Hockey Games (an annual World Championship preparation tournament in Stockholm and Helsinki), Bykov confirmed that two-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, 2009 World Championship MVP Ilya Kovalchuk, high-scoring Capitals forward Alexander Semin and promising young Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov all said they will answer to call to help the national team defend its World Championship gold medal. In addition, enigmatic Los Angeles Kings forward Alexander Frolov and Nashville Predators defenseman Denis Grebeshkov will join Team Russia for the start of the tournament.

In a recent interview with Sovetskiy Sport translated through, Kovalchuk explained that he and other top Russian players already had discussed possible World Championship participation immediately after the Olympics, and pledged to one another that they would play in the tournament if possible. He also said he spoke with Ovechkin and Semin shortly after the Caps lost Game 7 to Montreal. Although Kovalchuk is an impending free agent, he said his contract status will not be a deterrent to playing in Germany.

"We must win and make this season end well," Kovalchuk said. "My wife Nicole understood me at once, told me that the whole family would be watching games on TV and cheer for us. She and the kids stayed in Miami. I spent a week there and flew to Russia."

Subsequently, Team Russia general manager Igor Tuzik has gone about tending to the paperwork of applying for visas for the players, as well as making sure the players' insurance policies cover the possibility of injuries incurred while competing in the IIHF tournament.

Two prominent NHL players on teams that lost in the first round of the playoffs who declined their invitations, citing injury, are Ottawa Senators defenseman Anton Volchenkov (who also is an impending NHL free agent) and Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. The absence of Vezina Trophy finalist Bryzgalov, who told Tuzik he has been having problems with his back, means Varlamov will be Russia's starting goalie. In addition to Varlamov, promising youngsters such as New York Rangers rookie center Artem Anisimov and Florida Panthers rookie defenseman Dmitri Kulikov are expected to play for the Russia.

Among prominent Russian players competing in the KHL, there is mixed news on the injury front heading into the Worlds. Former Nashville Predators winger Alexander Radulov (Salavat Yulaev Ufa) had to withdraw from the LG Hockey Games due to injury, but will be ready to go for the tourney in Germany. On the down side, Igor Grigorenko (Salavat Yulaev), high-scoring Ak Bars Kazan linemates Alexei Morozov and Danis Zaripov, and their former third linemate, Sergei Zinoviev (now with Dynamo Moscow), all are unavailable due to injury.

Even without these players, Russia will enter the tournament as the favorite to capture another gold medal. This especially is true in light of the fact that most of the other top contenders have few of their top NHL players available for the tournament. But Kovalchuk, who may be named captain in Morozov's absence, cautions against overconfidence.

"In the first place, we have to think about our team. It doesn't matter who we will play," he told Sovetskiy Sport. "All teams will fight against Russia. Especially the young guys, who want to show themselves."

All three of Russia's preliminary round games in Group A will be held in Cologne. In Group B, Team Canada will battle Switzerland, Latvia and Italy. Group C is highlighted by Sweden and the Czech Republic and also includes Norway and France. In Group D, Finland will face off against Team USA, Germany and Denmark.

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