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World Cup

Team Russia hopes to reverse fortunes at World Cup

Fresh faces, playing together could 'do a lot of damage in this tournament'

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- On the opening day of training camp for the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at Yubileyny Sports Palace on Monday, Team Russia's impressive array of scoring skill was obvious even with four players getting the day off.

Left wing Alex Ovechkin, who led the NHL in goals for a fourth straight season in 2015-16 with 50, skated on the first line with Washington Capitals teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov at center and right wing Nikita Kucherov, who led the Tampa Bay Lightning with 66 points. The second line had Pittsburgh Penguins two-time Stanley Cup champion Evgeni Malkin centering Vladimir Tarasenko, who had 40 goals for the St. Louis Blues last season, and Nikolay Kulemin.  

That relegated reigning Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin, who led NHL rookies with 30 goals, 47 assists and 77 points, to the third line with Chicago Blackhawks teammate Artem Anisimov and Vladislav Namestnikov.

On Tuesday, Team Russia coach Oleg Znarok will add four forwards from the Kontinental Hockey League, including former Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk, to that mix and try to figure out where everyone fits best for its opening pretournament game, against Team Czech Republic at Yubileyny Sports Palace on Thursday (12:30 p.m. ET; ESPN3, SN, TVA Sports).

"Two lines are already defined," Znarok said. "[Tuesday], you will see maybe all of them."

Determining how to fit all that talent together is a nice problem for any coach to have, but it's one that has proven difficult for past coaches of Russia's national team to solve. For much of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russia appeared disjointed and was the host country's biggest disappointment by losing to Finland in the quarterfinals.

It was the third consecutive Olympics where Russia failed to win a medal. It seemed to be no coincidence that many of the players stressed Monday the importance of coming together as a team for the World Cup.

"I think we all have to stay together and play team hockey," Kuznetsov said. "If we do, we can beat any team. But I think all the teams think the same thing. We all have to play five guys on [defense], five through the neutral zone and five in the offensive zone, and just help our goalies see the puck and find the rebound."

Kuznetsov is one of seven forwards on Team Russia who did not play in Sochi. On defense, Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov are the only holdovers from the 2014 Olympics.

Perhaps some new blood will help change Team Russia's fortunes.

"I've never played for Team Russia," Kucherov said. "I don't know what it's like to play in the Olympic Games. But we have a great group of guys and I think we can do a lot of damage in this tournament."

Russia's early exit in Sochi cost Zinetula Bilyaletdinov his job as coach of the national team. Znarok, a three-time coach of the year in the KHL, took over later in 2014 for the World Championship in Minsk, Belarus, and guided Russia to the gold medal. 

Znarok, 53, coached Russia to the silver medal at the 2015 World Championship and the bronze medal at the 2016 Worlds. But many of the best players in the NHL are unavailable for the World Championship because they are busy competing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The World Cup will present a higher level of competition for Team Russia. It hasn't responded well in a best-against-best format since winning bronze at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.

"This is a tournament everyone wants to play in," Znarok said. "And also this is [a] preparation stage for the Olympics."

Said Ovechkin, "Everybody is trying to win the tournament, everybody is trying to win their games. So we'll see how it goes."

As Ovechkin noted, Team Russia and the 2014 Sochi team are, "totally different teams, different system, different coaches." Still, it appears Znarok will have to work some magic with Team Russia's defense.

That was as evident in practice Monday watchingTeam Russia's impressive firepower up front.

The goaltending is solid with Semyon Varlamov, Sergei Bobrovsky and Andrei Vasilevskiy. But on defense, Emelin and Markov lead an undistinguished group that includes Dmitry Kulikov, 25; Dmitry Orlov, 25; Nikita Zaitsev, 24; Alexey Marchenko, 24; and Nikita Nesterov, 23. 

"We need to make quick decisions with the puck and give it to our forwards because that's the most important," Orlov said. "We have good forward lines and I think we need to play more in the offensive zone and give our forwards a chance to make some plays and score goals. Tarasenko, Ovechkin and Malkin, all these guys are stars in the NHL, so the quicker you give them the puck, they can make a play and get confidence to play every moment, every shift."

Znarok, who skated the players hard Monday in a practice that lasted more than 70 minutes, said he's counting on the forwards to help in the defensive zone.

"Our star forwards have to work in defense," he said. "Then everything will be OK."

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