As is often the case in these short tournaments, Russia experienced some wild inconsistency in the 2010 Olympics. They opened the tournament on a high note by thumping Latvia 8-2, a team that went on to be outscored 22-6 in four games. (Unsurprisingly, they didn’t qualify for 2014.) The Russians were then beaten 2-1 by Slovakia in a game that went to a seven-round shootout. They finished the round robin by beating the Czechs 4-2 before being manhandled by the Canadians 7-3 in the quarterfinals.
The Russians simply had no answer for the size and speed of the Canadians, who peppered Evgeni Nabokov with 21 shots in the first period alone. Nabokov was eventually pulled early in the second period after allowing a dubious six goals on 23 shots, and Ilya Bryzgalov came in and settled things down somewhat. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to fault Head Coach Vyacheslav Bykov for not going with Bryzgalov from the start, but Nabokov had played well in two games before that, winning both of them.
This time around, Bryzgalov wasn’t even invited to orientation camp and Nabokov will battle Semyon Varlamov and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky for the starting job. The forward group has as much talent as any in this tournament, but the defense remains a question mark. They’ll battle the USA, Slovakia and Slovenia in Group A as they attempt to follow Canada’s suit from Vancouver and win gold on home soil.
Here’s how I see the final 25-man roster breaking down:
- For reasons unbeknownst to man, Loktionov, Burmistrov and Kulikov were left off the pre-Olympic camp invitation list. I wonder if there’s some weird politicking involved or an under-the-table “agreement” with the KHL where the Russians have to include a certain number of KHLers on the squad. That’d be really dumb, of course, because you’d think they would want as many NHLers as possible on their team because, y’know, that’s where the best players in the world play. Although Burmistrov just made the jump to the KHL this offseason so that doesn’t explain his exclusion. At any rate, that’s still a ridiculously talented group of forwards even if Loktionov and Burmistrov are snubbed. Kuznetsov, the Washington Capitals’ prospect, is expected to make the jump to the NHL by 2014-15. He scored 44 points in 51 games in the KHL last year as a 20-year-old.
- The defense actually doesn’t look as bad as I first thought. The 34-year-old Markov returned from injuries to play a full 48-game season with the Montreal Canadiens last year. The 38-year-old Gonchar is still playing effectively for the Ottawa Senators. Nikitin, Volchenkov and Emelin are all known for their defensive prowess, while Tyutin continues to put up points and play a lot of minutes for the Columbus Blue Jackets. This top seven is solid, if unspectacular, and at least shouldn’t hurt Russia’s chances of medalling.
- Bobrovsky came out of nowhere last year to nearly carry the Blue Jackets into the playoffs with a .932 save percentage. His season was especially surprising when considering he had such a poor 2011-12, posting a measly .899 save percentage in 29 games. In 2010-11, however, he put up a .915 in 54 games. Is Bobrovsky likely to fall back to earth a bit this season? Sure. But how much will he fall? I think he has enough of a track record to believe if he plays enough games (and he’ll surely play a ton in Columbus) he can perform very well again. Add in the fact he’s just turning 25 years old and Russia should be very excited about him starting in Sochi. Varlamov had a tough year, but the Colorado Avalanche starter should make the backup spot over the 38-year-old Nabokov.