Even without the stars from their homeland, who are currently dominating the NHL, Russian players are confident on the eve of their opener Wednesday against Slovakia at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. For the first time since 1994, elite NHL stars are not at the Olympics. NHL owners decided not to shut down the season, over money and injury issues. The Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League halted its campaign and the Olympic Athletes from Russia -- banned from using their flag and anthem after the Sochi doping scandal -- will include 15 players from KHL leader SKA St. Petersburg, and eight more from second-best CSKA Moscow.
"There are guys who have played with each other for a long time," the OAR's Vladislav Gavrikov said. "Lines probably play better because of this. For us, pretty much every player can play with any other player." That familiarity and top young talent being eyed by the NHL makes the Russian squad a favourite in an up-for-grabs tournament. And that's without NHL stars Alex Ovechkin, a Washington winger who leads the NHL with 33 goals, winger Nikita Kucherov, who paces the NHL in total points with 30 goals and 41 assists, and his Tampa Bay team-mate Andrei Vasilevskiy, who leads goaltenders with 33 wins.
Ilya Kovalchuk, a 34-year-old left winger who played 11 NHL seasons, makes his fifth Olympic appearance on a team trying to produce the first Olympic gold for Russian talent since the 1992 Unified Team. "It's bad that the NHL guys are not here. I think everybody wants them to be here. The Olympics, all the best players should play here because it's a big event," Kovalchuck said. "But it is what it is. We have a great team. Everybody has a lot of talent. There are five or six teams at the same level that have a lot of young kids who will be future NHLers."
The 'R' word
For Russian talent, there's a stinging memory of a 3-1 quarter-final loss to Finland on 2014 Sochi Olympic home ice. "Sochi, it's one tournament. Maybe a little less pressure here because we don't play at home," Kovalchuck said. "But we'll see. There's always pressure on the Russian team. We will try to be more successful. "The most important thing is for each player to get self control because a lot will depend on each person and each little thing can be the deciding factor." OAR assistant coach Harijs Vitolins dismisses the favourites role.
"Our team is level now," he said. "Each player needs to understand he has a chance to decide the game and each knows his role. That's one of the positive aspects." SKA St. Petersburg winger Sergei Shirokov says the Russian clubs have put aside their league rivalry to unite for their nation in the quest for long-sought gold. "It's not SKA and CSKA playing. Here the team that's playing is called -- well, you know, I'm not allowed to say the word," he said. "We're one big family and we're working together on one goal for ourselves and the country."