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SOCHI 2014

Pressure on ice

Ovechkin hopes to lead Russia to hockey gold, but it won't be easy

February 07, 2014|Helene Elliott
  • A man walks past a poster of Russian hockey star Alexander Ovechkin near the Olympic cauldron in the seaside cluster prior to the start of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia.
A man walks past a poster of Russian hockey star Alexander Ovechkin near… (Alexander Nemenov / Getty…)

SOCHI, RUSSIA — Alexander Ovechkin hasn't arrived yet, but his imprint is all over the Winter Olympics.

The Russian forward's smiling face -- featuring a gap where one of his front teeth should be -- is on menus distributed aboard Sochi-bound flights on the Russian airline Aeroflot, on Coca-Cola machines in Olympic Park, and in advertisements for Coke. An official ambassador for the Games, Ovechkin was the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch after it was lighted in Greece and began its journey to Russia.

Whether the Washington Capitals winger and his teammates will win the last event -- the men's gold-medal hockey game Feb. 23 -- will heavily influence whether Russia will consider these Games a success.

The Soviet Union's Big Red Machine won seven of nine Olympic titles from 1956 through 1988, but that era is long gone. Russia hasn't had its hands on Olympic gold since 1992, when a group of former Soviet republics played together under the Unified Team banner, and its last medal was a bronze in 2002.

There's enormous pressure on the hockey team as a whole and Ovechkin in particular to win gold in the first Winter Olympics staged in Russia. The man who leads the NHL with 40 goals said he's prepared.

"The Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians than any other athletes in the whole world," he told the Associated Press.

"And since I was a little kid and since everybody was a little kid, their dream was playing in Olympic Games, especially if we have a chance to represent our country in Sochi in Russia. It's unbelievable and it's going to be a great thing."

In trying to duplicate Canada's feat of winning at home in 2010, Russia can count on a formidable offense led by Ovechkin, two-time NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh and winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who left millions of dollars in New Jersey to return to Russia and play for SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League. Team captain Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings normally would lead that list, but he sustained a lower-body injury on Jan. 1 and it's not certain he will play.

The goaltending of Semyon Varlamov and 2013 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky figure to be a plus for Russia, but its defense is less than imposing and could be its downfall.

Canada and the U.S. have better depth than Russia, but each must defy its Olympic history and adjust to a surface that's 15 feet wider than NHL rinks.

Canada, which won in Vancouver four years ago on Sidney Crosby's overtime goal, hasn't won gold outside North America since 1952. The U.S., which brought back 13 players from the 2010 runner-up squad, has never won gold outside its own country: Its wins were at Squaw Valley in 1960 and Lake Placid in 1980.

Canada has impeccable depth up the middle with NHL scoring leader Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron. Its defense balances puck-movers and bruisers. "We understand the opportunity is great," Coach Mike Babcock said after the roster was announced, "and that means the preparation has to be equal. We won't let you down in that area, I can assure you."

Goaltending is a key asset for the U.S., with the Kings' Jonathan Quick and Buffalo's Ryan Miller vying for the starting job and Detroit's Jimmy Howard supporting them.

"You look at strengths of the team, you have to look at the goaltending first and foremost," said U.S. and Pittsburgh Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma. "Starting this whole process, we looked at five, six guys that could have been No. 1 guys on other teams."

Team USA executives went young on defense by selecting the Ducks' Cam Fowler, Washington's John Carlson and Carolina's Justin Faulk to play alongside veterans like Ryan Suter, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin.

"I think our defense is a strength of our team," Bylsma said. "I don't think we look at our roster and say we're the most skilled team in the tournament. I think our guys are the hardest guys to play against.

"We're really not looking for this to be an All-Star competition. We're looking to be the best team, and I like the composition of our team."

Finland has won the most medals since the tournament was opened to NHL players -- two bronze and a silver -- and has a chance to add another. Ducks winger Teemu Selanne, 43, will make his hockey-record-tying sixth Olympic appearance and the Finns' goaltending has the potential to be stellar in the hands of San Jose's Antti Niemi and Boston's Tuukka Rask. However, clever forward Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild hasn't been cleared to play since he underwent ankle surgery Jan. 6 and Finland would deeply miss him.

Sweden's considerable skill level was diminished when Vancouver center Henrik Sedin had to scratch from the tournament because of a nagging rib injury.

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