Hockey

Mike Brophy - Wednesday Feb. 12, 2014 17:34 ET

Men’s hockey preview: Powerhouses Russia, U.S. hit the ice

Pressure on Russians to win at home

Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk

Alex Ovechkin, left, and Ilya Kovalchuk: Russian snipers Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk have combined for 828 career NHL goals, and will put their talents on display in Sochi. (Getty Images/Associated Press/CBCSports.ca)

It is the moment most Russian sports fans have been waiting for – the start of the men’s hockey tournament at the Sochi Olympics.

Not that there’s much pressure on the host country to win.

Nikolai Kulemin of the Toronto Maple Leafs said his country could win every event at the 2014 Olympic Games, but if the hockey team does not capture the gold medal, the entire event will be considered a failure by the people of Russia.

He was not kidding.

So important is this particular hockey tournament to the good folks of Russia, Washington superstar Alexander Ovechkin vowed if there was not going to be NHL participation at the Sochi Games, he was prepared to abandon the Capitals for a few weeks to play in the Olympics.

Turns out there was no need for Ovechkin to jump ship.

Ovechkin – who is like a rock star at the Sochi Games and the face of the Olympics in his country – and his teammates have an easy (relatively speaking) opponent in their first game, Slovenia on Thursday morning. Players will tell you there are no easy games at the Olympics, but come on, Russia versus Slovenia?

Powerhouse offence

The Russian boast a high-powered offence with the likes of Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin and even Alexander Radulov, when he’s in the mood.

Their goaltending should also be solid with Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky battling it out for the starter’s job.

The one worry concerning the Russians, aside from the immense pressure they are under to win at home, is how they will play if things get tight. Unlike the Russian teams that came over in the seventies and eighties that played as five-man units under strict orders from militant coaches, these guys tend to want to do it all by themselves when the game gets tight. It is a bad and losing strategy.

That will put a little extra pressure on team captain and all-around best player Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings. Datsyuk missed the team’s initial practice because of a lower body injury, but is expected to be in the lineup for Game 1 skating between Kovalchuk and Radulov.

As for Slovenia, big centre Anze Kopitar has his work cut out for him. He is the only NHL player slated to play for Slovenia in the Olympics.

"The score is going to be 0-0 to start," Kopitar said. "I'm sure it's going to be a fun game. We've been looking forward to it for quite a while and it's going to be very fun. We're playing probably the best Russian team they've ever put together. It's going to be a big challenge for us."

U.S.A. has tougher test

In other action Thursday, the United States plays its first game against Slovakia. It will be a tough test for the Americans, who came within a whisker of winning the gold medal in 2010 in Vancouver, ultimately losing the championship game 3-2 in overtime to Canada.

The Americans seem to have it all this year, starting with excellent goaltending. Ryan Miller, the tournament’s top player in 2010, is back and he’ll compete with Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick for the starter’s job.

Any team that has Zdeno Chara on the blue-line generally has a chance to win, especially in a short tournament situation. Chara is the leader of the Slovaks and he’ll get plenty of help from fellow vet Marian Hossa.

The team was hit with two big losses when injuries forced Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky to withdraw from the Olympics.

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