Russia Surging Towards Olympics
It surely seems the stars are aligning for Russia to reclaim Olympic hockey glory.
Russia had the three best players in the NHL this season, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk. Without any of them, the Russians captured a second straight world championship title today in Bern, Switzerland, erecting an early 2-1 lead over Canada and then making it stand backstopped by the goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov of the Phoenix Coyotes.
It was also the third straight victory by Russia over Canada in a big international contest, including a quarterfinal clash at the 2006 Olympics in Turin and last year's world championships gold medal game in Quebec City.
But the main reason to believe Russia might be able to win the Olympic men's hockey tournament for the first time since 1992 is that finally it appears to have unity with its national program.
After the fall of the old Soviet regime, Russian hockey was for a time erratic internationally because the newfound freedoms of Russian players in the west clashed with old-time attitudes of how the national team should be run. Players refused to play for the motherland, and a series of coaches failed to gain control over the national program.
"It often felt as though our coach had no role on this team," said forward Maxim Sushinsky in a famous critique of one-time Soviet great Alexander Yakushev after he coached Russia to a disgraceful finish at the 2000 worlds in St. Petersburg.
"It was almost as if he didn't exist."
Viacheslav Bykov, however, seems to have changed all that. The longtime national team star, who took over from Vladimir Krikunov after Turin, has guided the Russians to the last two world titles by combining available NHLers with players from the Kontinental Hockey League and producing teams with both powerful offences and a committment to team play.
Bykov, who played much of his career in Switzerland, won four world titles and two Olympic golds as a Soviet/Russian player, and at 48 years of age seems to be the perfect bridge between the old Soviet hockey powerhouse and the new Russia.
He will coach Russia at the Vancouver Olympics next year, giving the Russians continuity between the world tournament and the Olympics. Alexey Morozov has captained the last two world championship teams and will likely be Russia's captain in Vancouver. Meanwhile, KHLers like Oleg Tverdovsky, Alexander Ragulov and Alexei Perezhogin played very well today and could be part of the Russian Olympic team.
Interestingly, while Russia was supposed to be weak on the back end at the 2009 worlds, they were able to shut down Canada today except for a first period goal from Jason Spezza.
Again, as in Turin and Quebec City, it seemed like Canada lacked the footspeed to out-maneuver the Russians at key moments, although Bryzgalov had to be outstanding. Longtime Canadian national team stalwarts like Shane Doan, Dany Heatley and Martin St. Louis didn't exactly clinch spots on the Olympic team with their performances in front of Olympic boss Steve Yzerman.
Attention will now turn to the players that Yzerman will invite to Canada's summer orientation camp in Calgary, a list that could include 40 players or more. Youngster Steve Stamkos scored seven goals for Canada at the worlds and might get an invite, while the goaltending picture appears wide-open, particularly if Roberto Luongo once again can't make it past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
By contrast, the Russians seem more settled with continuity from back-to-back world titles and ownership of the three best players in the world right now.
You could certainly argue they should be the favourites to win it all in Vancouver.