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2014 Winter Olympics: Russia Men's Hockey Team Preview

The spotlight will shine bright on the Russians as they attempt to live up to the legacy of the Big Red Machine.

Bruce Bennett

As it is the time of national team competition, it is time for blind, unquestioning patriotism.

Which means I'm not going to tell you the Russian Olympic hockey team may boast the best top four forwards in the entire tournament between Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin. I won't mention how their forward group is so deep it looks like Dallas Stars rookie Valeri Nichushkin is the likely scratch for the opening game. I won't even mention how teams on home ice traditionally perform better while teams that have to travel halfway around the world tend to struggle.

(As an aside, given how North American teams tend to struggle relative to their own expectations at best-on-best tournaments overseas, is it any surprise that the old guard hates the idea of sending NHL players to those tournaments outside of the US or Canada?)

Nope, instead of talking about how the Russian hockey team has the potential to be by far the biggest story of these Games over in their home country, let's take a look back at all the reason we shouldn't fear them.

Wait, that wasn't what I was going for...

But it does lead to a salient point. Just like in Vancouver, the home hockey team carries the burden of a nation's expectations. It's been repeatedly stated that only one gold medal really matters to the Russians in these Games, and that's men's hockey. Just like Canadians, the Russians consider a dominant men's hockey team something of a birthright because of the sheer dominance of those USSR teams, which owned Olympic competition from 1956-1988 and was so dominant even outside the Games that perhaps the dirtiest play in international hockey history is celebrated as an act of brilliance on the part of Team Canada.

These Russians aren't the Big Red Machine. No one is. But they still attracted 200 media members to their practice before the NHL players even got there, a number that is sure to grow. They are like the rock stars of Team Canada at this tournament.

And they still present a formidable challenge to anyone in their path.

Their strength, beyond being buoyed by the home crowd and possibly well-founded fear of Vladimir Putin, is obviously that set of forwards, which not only boasts some of the best pure offensive talents in the world but is also likely more familiar with the intricacies of playing on the big international ice. I might spend every moment that they spend on the power play against the United States with my head buried in my hands.

Much like the United States, though, the defense is just... okay, at least for the international level. Players like Andrei Markov, Nikita Nikitin, Slava Voynov and Anton Belov don't necessarily put the fear of god in their opponents. They certainly could be more than fine with that group, but especially compared with the forwards, it is not really a team strength.

The goalies could easily be a strength or a weakness - it all depends on which versions of Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov show up. Varlamov has been spectacular at times this season for the Colorado Avalanche but was very pedestrian last year. Bobrovsky was brilliant last year, the well-deserved Vezina winner with a 2.00 goals against average in 38 games, but he's been more along the lines of "pretty good" this time around.

Where might the Russians finish? That's anyone's guess. The tournament format means everyone moves on to the elimination round but group strength matters a lot in terms of getting a bye into the quarterfinals. It's also almost impossible to predict how the elimination round matchups might look. You could make a case that Group A, which features both Russia and the United States as well as Slovakia, is the strongest of the round-robin quartets with only one real pushover team in Slovenia rather than two (Austria and Norway in Group B and Latvia and Switzerland in Group C - sorry Sandis Ozolins and Zemgus Girgensons).

At the very least, the game on Saturday versus the United States should be ulcer-inducing fun. For your requisite pumping up for that, revisit Josh's Team USA preview.

For the motherland, nothing less than gold will do - the pressure on these guys is likely equal to that which was on the Canadians last Winter Olympics. They easily have the offensive talent to finish in the medals, but the spotlight can be a harsh mistress.

Here's the full roster:

Artem Anisimov
Pavel Datsyuk
Nikolai Kulemin
Evgeni Malkin
Valeri Nichushkin
Alex Ovechkin
Vladimir Tarasenko
Ilya Kovalchuk
Alexander Radulov
Viktor Tikhonov
Alexander Svitov
Alexander Popov
Alexander Semin
Alexei Tereshchenko
Anton Belov
Alexei Emelin
Andrei Markov
Nikita Nikitin
Fedor Tyutin
Slava Voynov
Yevgeny Medvedev
Ilya Nikulin
Sergei Bobrovsky
Semyon Varlamov
Alexander Eremenko