You have to go back to 1992 to find the last time a Russian team managed to take home an Olympic gold medal in men's hockey. Since the NHL started taking part in the tournament in 1998, the powerful Russians have managed just a silver (1998) and a bronze (2002) and have come up empty medal-wise in the past two Olympic tournaments. All of which adds to the tremendous burden on Team Russia in Sochi, the first time the Olympics have been held on Russian soil.
Five things to watch
1. Let's start with the pressure and the ability of this team to avoid the potential disruptive nature of the idea that nothing but a gold will do. Canada faced this pressure head-on in Vancouver, and to a lesser extent in Salt Lake City in 2002, and managed to overcome early-tournament bumps to win gold in both cases. The Russians have historically not responded well to such pressure. They folded against Canada in the quarterfinal in Vancouver, losing 7-3. Go back to 2000 when a talented Russian team imploded and finished 11th at the World Championships in St. Petersburg, and Russia could come up with only a bronze when the tournament was held in Moscow in 2007. But all of those moments pale in comparison to the expectations for this team on this stage. Do players like Pavel Datsyuk, who will captain the Russian team, Alex Ovechkin and erstwhile NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk have enough of a presence to lead this team through whatever pitfalls it might encounter?
2. Not only do the Russians have to worry about how they will respond to the pressure of playing on home soil, they'll have to deal with the collision of cultures within their own lineup. Nine of the 25 players named to the team are playing in the Kontinental Hockey League this season. Six of those players are forwards, which presents another question critical to this team's chances of success: Will there be enough scoring depth to keep pace with the other big-boy nations in this tournament? Yes, Datsyuk, Ovechkin (the runaway leader in goals scored in the NHL this season) and Evgeni Malkin may be able to provide enough offense on their own, but will Kovalchuk, Alexander Radulov, Viktor Tikhonov or Alexander Svitov be able to provide enough depth, which would seem to be critical when playing against strong defensive teams like Canada, the U.S. or Sweden? More to the point, how will the coaching staff manage to integrate the two disparate groups of players -- one used to an NHL style of play in smaller rinks and the other used to the bigger Olympic-sized rinks? It didn't happen in Vancouver but maybe the process will be easier this time around.
3. If we assume the offense is going to be as good as anyone's in the tournament, the bigger problem -- at least on paper -- is that the Russian defense has the potential to be paper-thin. Andrei Markov is a good, sometimes terrific player, but he is as good as it gets for the Russians on the blue line. Is Slava Voynov, a solid player who has evolved nicely on the Los Angeles Kings' blue line, ready to take on a leadership role? If not, then who? Anton Belov of the Edmonton Oilers? Alexei Emelin of the Montreal Canadiens? Perhaps the group will be greater than the sum of its parts, thus putting a gold within reach. If not? Well, that's a whole other story.
4. Along with the Finns (Tuukka Rask, Kari Lehtonen, Antti Niemi) and the Americans (Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick), the Russians should have medal-worthy goaltending in the form of Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche and the defending Vezina Trophy winner from Columbus, Sergei Bobrovsky. Neither has experience playing on this kind of a stage, although Varlamov did win a gold and a silver as a starter for Russia in the 2012 and 2010 World Championships, respectively. Not unlike the dilemma facing U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma, how Zinetula Bilyaletdinov handles his goaltending assignments will be an interesting storyline to follow early in the tournament. Many assume Bobrovsky will be 'the man,' but the way Varlamov has played -- plus his international résumé -- means he can't be counted out of the mix.
5. We talked about the pressure facing this team, but the flip side is that every game is a home game for Team Russia. Was that home crowd boost a factor for the Canadians in Vancouver? For the U.S. in Salt Lake City when the Americans won a silver? Undoubtedly. It will be interesting to see with all of the security issues and questions about ticket pricing whether the buildings will be full, but let's assume there will be sellout crowds whenever Team Russia plays and that can't help but boost the home side, especially once the medal round starts.
There are a couple of emerging young stars on the Russian roster, but Tarasenko has evolved quickly into a top producer for the St. Louis Blues. Head coach Ken Hitchcock has raved to us about the maturation of his game and, if scoring depth is going to be pivotal to the Russians' chances, Tarasenko will need to deliver. No doubt he's got the tools to do just that.
In our grid, we have the Russians falling to Canada in the semifinals and then beating Sweden in the bronze-medal game. Bronze medal.