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
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
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
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
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
While 14 of Russia’s 23 players are on NHL rosters, Latvia only
has two in captain Karlis Skrastins and fellow defenseman Oskars
Skrastins has two goals and nine assists for Dallas in his 11th
season, while Bartulis has eight assists in 46 games as a rookie
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.