'O,' what pressure on Russia

Posted: February 13, 2014

THE BEAR has been poked.

From the time North American journalists began arriving in Sochi last week, Russia's preparations to host 2,800 athletes and millions of visitors for 98 sporting events have been mocked around the globe.

But almost universally, most participants at the Games have lauded the facilities and ease of access.

Yet Russians are focused on just one way to measure the true success of the 2014 Winter Olympics: whether its men's hockey team can win gold on home soil in the sport it once dominated.

It is no coincidence that Vladislav Tretiak, three-time gold medalist and best goaltender to never play in the NHL, was tasked with lighting the Olympic cauldron at the Opening Ceremony. He ignited the flame that now burns at the feet of Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the Russian roster.

Ovechkin was told by a journalist yesterday that 143 million people are counting on him.

"I like pressure," Ovechkin replied. "I like how the people look at me. It means the people respect you. The pressure is going to come 100 percent."

We hope Ovechkin likes the way Vladimir Putin's beady eyes look at him, too. These are Putin's Games, after all, and $50 billion is resting on Ovechkin's stick. Anything less than gold will be an utter failure.

The Russians are not the favorite. But they are indeed the biggest wild card.

They have incredible top-end skill, led by Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. They have motivation - perhaps something not all of those players possess during an 82-game season.

The sheer weight of that pressure, though, looms large. And Pavel Datsyuk is not healthy.

Only Sidney Crosby and Canada know of Russia's struggle. When you look back on Crosby's perfectly placed golden goal in 2010 in Vancouver, it is so easy to forget about how close that came to never happening.

It is easy to forget how Canada needed overtime to beat Switzerland, lost to Team USA in the preliminary round and nearly fell to Slovakia in the semifinals. It is easy to forget how Canada blew its lead to the U.S. late in the third period of the gold-medal game and nearly blew it all. Crosby erased all of those lingering memories.

Today, as the puck drops again, those memories serve as a reminder that anything goes in a single-elimination tournament.

It sure as heck seems like gold medal or absolute disaster for the Russians - and nothing in between. That's why, with a roster riddled with holes, I believe this all blows up for the Russians. They haven't won a best-on-best tournament with NHL-level talent since the 1981 Canada Cup.

Naturally, the best bet is Canada, the heavy favorite with the "Dream Team" roster. The Canadians are the safe pick. Our neighbors to the north, with balance at every position, have won three of the last five best-on-best tourneys.

But none of those wins occurred on the bigger, international ice surface.

That's why I like Sweden, the last nation to win Olympic gold on big ice in 2006 and last year's world champion, to top a scrappy Team USA in the gold-medal game. As Henrik Sedin said recently, "It's been 10 or 15 years since we played on the big ice, but we know what you can't do out there."

The Americans will be the hardest-working team in the tournament, but they'll fall just short - ultimately breaking the skid of North American countries to medal overseas.

Even without Sedin and Johan Franzen, Sweden has plenty of scoring, thanks to Henrik Zetterberg, Alex Steen, Gabriel Landeskog and Nicklas Backstrom. In goal, Henrik Lundqvist is peaking at the right time, with a .938 save percentage in January.

Most important, though, Sweden has the best blue-line corps in the tournament. Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Erik Karlsson lead a puck-moving defense that can skate and score. They are so stacked that Victor Hedman and Jonas Brodin are left watching the tournament from home.

The Swedes aren't physical, but that isn't what this tournament is about. Hockey, especially on the world's biggest stage in a much bigger rink, is about skating. Few teams can do that like Tre Kronor.

What's up, Doc?

Flyers team physicians Peter DeLuca and Gary Dorshimer are in Sochi to help care for the NHL’s 146 players. Believe it or not, they’re referring to players by a specific file number instead of name for all communications with their NHL team staffs, to prevent medical records from being compromised by security breaches in Russia.

Upset alert

Keep an eye on: Slovakia, which nearly knocked off Canada in Vancouver in 2010, and finished fourth. Jaroslav Halak has been playing well enough to steal a game — plus, having Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa never hurts.

Rollin' in rubles

$593,313,716: Total amount of NHL salary in Sochi among 146 players. That’s 20.6 billion Russian rubles.

$149.1 million: Canada’s combined team salary for 25 NHL players.

$119.7 million: Team USA’s combined salary for 25 NHL players.

$894,167: NHL salary-cap hit of Latvia’s only NHL player, Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons, the lowest total of any Olympic team.

Whistle from home

Philly native and NHL official Ian Walsh is one of only two American-born referees in Sochi.

No, thanks

Goaltenders were given the option to use longer pads at the Olympics. All three U.S. and Canadian goalies declined.

Liar, liar

In 2002, Finland’s Teemu Selanne said Salt Lake City was his last Olympics. Twelve years later, the 43-year-old will play in his sixth straight Winter Games.

Swipe for fun

At Canada’s Olympic House, only Canadian athletes can swipe their passport for exclusive access to a refrigerator stocked with cold beer. That alone is worthy of a gold medal.

Welcome back

Last February, Flyers forward Michael Raffl helped Austria qualify for its first Olympic tournament since 2002 in Salt Lake City.

Lavy timeout?

Serving under Dan Bylsma with Team USA, Peter Laviolette will be back on the bench for the first time since being abruptly fired by the Flyers on Oct. 7.

Five-ring circus

Kimmo Timonen (Finland) has a silver and two bronze medals in his trophy case and is the most successful of the Flyers’ five Olympians. Mark Streit (Switzerland) has been to three previous Olympics, with a best finish of sixth in 2006. In 2010, Andrej Meszaros helped Slovakia place fourth. Michael Raffl (Austria) and Jake Voracek (Czech Republic) will make their Olympic debuts.

On Twitter: @DNFlyers

Blog: ph.ly/FrequentFlyers

comments powered by Disqus