Alex Ovechkin’s search for his first Stanley Cup takes a break,

and the quest to win his first Olympic gold medal begins.

Ovechkin and his top-ranked Russian teammates look to get the

tournament off to a strong start Tuesday night when they face

Latvia.

Russia is ranked No. 1 by the IIHF and is considered one of the

gold-medal favorites thanks in part to Ovechkin, who leads the NHL

with 89 points and is tied with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby with a

league-high 42 goals.

The left wing’s outstanding season has spurred the Washington

Capitals to the best record in the NHL heading into the Olympic

break.

Ovechkin will look to carry that success into Vancouver before

trying to lead the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup.

At the age of 20, Ovechkin had five goals in nine games as

Russia finished fourth at the 2006 Olympics, falling 3-0 to the

Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game.

It was the fourth straight Olympics in which the team failed to

win gold after doing so in eight of the previous 10 as the Soviet

Union – it was the Unified Team in 1988 – but those championship

teams included Latvian players.

This time, Ovechkin will have Capitals teammate Alexander Semin,

who has 30 goals and 65 points playing the right wing of

Washington’s top line.

“It’s always good when I have friends and teammates in your team

in Russia,” Ovechkin said. “It’s going to be fun, too.”

He’s also likely to go up against some NHL teammates. Capitals

center Nicklas Backstrom is playing for Sweden and left wing Tomas

Fleischmann is on the Czech Republic, which is in Group B with

Russia, Latvia and Slovakia.

“You don’t have friends on the ice,” said Russia center Pavel

Datsyuk, who has seven Detroit teammates playing on four teams.

Goaltender Semyon Varlamov is the third member of the Capitals

on the Russian team, but he’s not expected to play much because

Evgeni Nabokov is likely to start and Ilya Bryzgalov should be the

No. 1 backup. Nabokov is 34-9-9 with a 2.26 goals-against average

for San Jose this season, and Phoenix’s Bryzgalov led Russia to its

second consecutive gold medal at last year’s World

Championship.

During that tournament, Russia won all 11 games, including a 6-1

victory over Latvia before rallying for a 2-1 win against Canada to

take the gold.

Ilya Kovalchuk, tied for sixth in the NHL with 32 goals, had

five goals and nine assists to earn MVP honors at the 2009 worlds.

That roster didn’t even include Evgeni Malkin, but Pittsburgh’s

star center could be a key figure for Russia in Vancouver.

“They’ve got some of the top forwards in the world right now,”

Canada executive director Steve Yzerman said of the Russians.

“They’re the favorite going into this tournament. We have to play

our best, and with a little bit of luck the other countries can

dethrone them.”

Latvia, ranked 10th by the IIHF, has shown improvement since

finishing last at the 2006 Olympics, winning five of eight games at

last year’s World Championship before losing 4-2 to Canada in the

quarterfinals. That also came after Latvia eased into the Olympics

by winning all three games of qualifying, outscoring opponents

15-6.

While 14 of Russia’s 23 players are on NHL rosters, Latvia only

has two in captain Karlis Skrastins and fellow defenseman Oskars

Bartulis.

Skrastins has two goals and nine assists for Dallas in his 11th

season, while Bartulis has eight assists in 46 games as a rookie

with Philadelphia.

Scoring might be tough to come by in Group B, so production from

Janis Sprukts could help. The center, an eighth-round draft pick by

Florida in 2000 who has 14 games of NHL experience, had seven

points in three games of Olympic qualifying.