Russia all business preparing to play Slovenia
SOCHI -- After two days as the friendly hosts and main attraction at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the Russia men's ice hockey team has turned its focus to why they're actually here and the enormous task they have in front of them.
Russia opens the tournament Thursday against Slovenia (7:30 a.m. ET, MSNBC, CBC), starting what they hope and expect to be an 11-day journey to the top of the medal stand.
The time for advertisements and all-inclusive, unifying press conferences in front of hundreds of media members, some acting as fans, is over.
"I think we have to put everything behind us and just focus on the little details of the game, just play your game you know," Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov said. "If we're going to play like a team everything is going to be OK."
The Russians started onto the ice 15 minutes before their practice was scheduled to begin Wednesday. They skated fast and worked on creating chemistry with their forward lines and defense pairs, then spent the second half of practice on the power play.
The top unit features Markov and Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin on the points with Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk on the right-wing half-wall, former New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk in the high slot, and former Nashville Predators forward Alexander Radulov in the low slot.
That unit has combined for 420 power-play goals in the NHL, including 142 from Ovechkin and 138 from Kovalchuk. It has 1,241 goals in 3,185 games.
Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and Carolina Hurricanes right wing Alexander Semin are on the second power-play unit with St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko, Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov, and Evgeni Medvedev, a star defenseman in the Kontinental Hockey League.
"It doesn't matter how good, it has to work, you know," Markov said. "We have great players, great skills. But bottom line, we have to score the goals.
"If we're going to work like a unit of five and we're going to be on the same page we're going to have to score the goals. We have to shoot the puck. We have to get traffic. We have to battle. That's all about the power play."
Russia coach Zinetula Bilyaletinov still has to choose his goalie for the game Thursday. He said he'd make a decision between Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche and Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets later Wednesday.
"We will talk in afternoon," Bilyaletinov said. "We have some ideas, but we'll make a decision [in the] afternoon."
It was impossible to tell what those ideas were by watching practice. Varlamov faced the top power-play unit and Bobrovsky went up against the second unit, but he had one of Russia's top penalty-kill groups (Blue Jackets teammates Artem Anisimov, Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin along with Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Kulemin) working in front of him.
Varlamov may have an edge considering he played for Bilyaletinov previously; Bobrovsky never has worked with the coach before these Olympics. Russian journalists have said Bilyaletinov is known for favoring goalies he has worked with in the past.
Varlamov played for him in two IIHF World Championships, winning gold in 2012.
"We're on a national team. What the coach decides, that's what will happen," Bobrovsky said. "I'll take any decision."
Bilyaletinov said his forward lines will remain the same as they were in practice. Ovechkin will start the tournament on the left wing with Malkin at center and Semin on the right wing. Datsyuk will center the other top scoring line, with Kovalchuk on his left and Radulov on his right.
Russia's third line will be Anisimov between Kulemin and Tarasenko. It appears the four players who could be used on the fourth line are Alexei Tereshenko, Alexander Popov, Dallas Stars rookie Valeri Nichushkin and former Phoenix Coyotes prospect Viktor Tikhonov.
"After the first game it'll probably be evident where things went right or wrong," Bilyaletinov said.
It's basically impossible to find anybody here who thinks things could go wrong for Russia against Slovenia, which is in its first Olympics. But the hosts repeatedly have talked about how they can't take anybody lightly. Even Vladislav Tretiak, the legendary goalie who serves as the head of the Russian hockey federation, said Tuesday that Russia has to treat every game as if it were the gold-medal game because that's how their opponent will be treating it.
That's why the focus changed Wednesday. That's why the euphoria of being here at their Olympics no longer is a topic up for discussion.
"This is a very important game," Bilyaletinov said. "It doesn't matter who the competitor is, in any case we'll have to prepare. This is the first game so we have to be ready. That's it."
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Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer