BY foxsports • February 15, 2010

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.


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