2014 Winter Olympics Ice Hockey Preview: Team Russia

Martin Rose

Our look at the contenders for gold in the 2014 Olympics Ice Hockey Tournament continues today with a glimpse at the home squad, captained by a familiar face for Detroit fans.

For the look at Team Sweden that kicked off this series, check out Christian's post from Thursday here.

Pressure, oh pressure. You may argue the Canadians have a ton of pressure to repeat their gold medal performance from Vancouver in 2010. You could say the Americans have something to prove or that the Finns have been too good too long. You could say Sweden has great expectations. No country is under more pressure than the home team.

For Team Russia, the Sochi games are their chance to prove to the world that Russian hockey deserves its place on the world stage. On top of regular Olympic home team pressure, the Russians are eager to prove that their national league, the KHL, produces a product worthy of competing with North American hockey.

They're bringing quite a talented squad in their efforts to prove this.

Roster

Here are the current team rosters, per SBNation.

Goaltenders NHL Club
Sergei Bobrovsky Columbus Blue Jackets
Semyon Varlamov Colorado Avalanche
Alexander Eremenko
Defensemen NHL Club
Anton Belov Edmonton Oilers
Alexei Emelin Montreal Canadiens
Andrei Markov Montreal Canadiens
Nikita Nikitin Columbus Blue Jackets
Fedor Tyutin Colorado Avalanche
Slava Voynov Los Angeles Kings
Yevgeny Medvedev
Ilya Nikulin
Forwards NHL Club
Artem Anisimov Columbus Blue Jackets
Pavel Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings
Nikolai Kulemin Toronto Maple Leafs
Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins
Valeri Nichushkin Dallas Stars
Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Vladimir Tarasenko St. Louis Blues
Ilya Kovalchuk
Alexander Radulov
Viktor Tikhonov
Denis Kokarev
Alexander Popov
Alex Semin (replaces injured Sergei Soin) Carolina Hurricanes
Alexei Tereshchenko

This roster is going to fly under some radars based on the KHL factor, but generally the non-NHLers that Russia is bringing to the games are the kind of guys who would definitely have a place on NHL rosters if they were so inclined to (you know, guys like Radulov or Kovalchuk). To their benefit, the KHL guys have the added benefit of having been playing on the Olympic-sized ice surface all season. There's a mixture of offense and defense with good center depth and competitive goaltending here and, depending on the inclination of the coaching staff, they could put together an absolutely terrifying top two lines.

Offensively, the Russian squad will have good depth. There's a lot of good puck-movers among the forwards and some good two-way players. They're not as traditionally physical up front as other teams, but the speed and puck movement, as well as the difficulty in taking the puck away from their forwards should even that out. They've got a couple blueliners who can bring it from the top of the zone (notably Ilya Nikulin, who is probably the best Russian defenseman of his generation).

Defensively, the Russians will have good size on their blue line to deal with board and net-front battling. Overall perhaps not the most-mobile defensive unit or one with the greatest outlet passers, but they should do fine in five-man units where the Russian style of play calls for good forward involvement in the defensive zone.

In net, the Russians have guys who can play dominant shut-down. Between Varlamov and Bobrovsky, the competition for starter should push both of them to play their absolute best. This position is something of an X-factor for the Russian squad. The netminders will have a lot to say about how the home team does.

Biggest Strength

For top-end talent at the forward position, the Russians can go toe-to-toe with everybody. Between Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Radulov, and Alex Semin, there's a great mix of speed, strength, passing, playmaking, shooting, and toughness. Each of these guys is incredibly difficult to push off the puck and hard to stop in open ice.

Biggest Weakness

The defensive depth for Russia is a question. Other contenders should be able to put out lower lines that match favorably with Russia and the blueline corps is just decent. Compared to teams like Canada or Sweden, the Russians are behind their rivals in terms of number of pure two-way dominant defensemen. They have a collection of specialists who do well in one measure and poorly in another or guys who are well-rounded but not elite. It will be a battle for Team Russia's coaching to make sure they're constantly playing the D-Men's strengths most effectively.

Prediction

The Russians are a good team with a good shot at winning gold. They should absolutely consider the medal round to be their expectation, although they could realistically find themselves falling well below that goal if things don't gel for them. The individual collection of talent is there, but they're going to have to play a cohesive game to best bring it all to bear and frankly they haven't done that consistently in Games past.

Pavel Datsyuk as the team captain should bring winning experience and a calm professional demeanor. It will also mean that Datsyuk has some reputation to lose if his team doesn't perform well. In past international play, I've often thought that Datsyuk defers to his teammates more often than he should, choosing to highlight their skill while turning himself into more of a complimentary player. I think he's going to have to fight to avoid doing that in these games. Even playing with superstar wingers like Ovechkin or Kovalchuk, Datsyuk drives offense better when he's the key pivot on a line.

I'll predict Bronze for the Russians, but I'll set the plus/minus for error to be two places either direction.

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