Alexander Ovechkin, first one on the ice, stretches during a Russian Olympic team practice in Vancouver 2010.
By Greg Beacham / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sidney Crosby and Canada are traveling halfway around the world in search of another golden moment. Sweden, Finland and the U.S. team arrive in Sochi brimming with NHL talent and intending to depart with medals.
While every elite hockey player in the world desperately wants to win his sport's biggest international tournament, nobody needs to win in Sochi like the host team and Alex Ovechkin, the peerless goal-scorer expected to put Russia back atop the Olympic podium.
"Russia is going to have a whole different kind of pressure," said Teemu Selanne, who will suit up for the Finns in his record-tying sixth Olympics. "And it's not easy to be that team."
The Olympic men's hockey competition is much more than a glorified All-Star week to the 150 NHL players exchanging their money-making jerseys for their national colors in 12 frantic days on the Black Sea coast. The NHL's stars are back at their fifth consecutive games, and the defending champion Canadians are largely favored to win their third gold medal in four Olympics.
Yet even Wayne Gretzky realizes all eyes in Sochi are squarely on the home team, saying the Russians will be "very difficult for anybody to beat."
"There's a number of teams that can win," said Gretzky, who played for Canada in Nagano and built its gold-medal team in Salt Lake City. "It comes down to the same thing all the time: Best goaltender, and if your best player is the best player on the ice and the best line on the ice, your team is ultimately going to be the gold-medal winner."
The vaunted Soviet Union team claimed seven of the nine gold medals awarded between 1956 and 1988, but Russia hasn't won this tournament in 22 years. The Russians have just one silver and one bronze since Albertville in 1992, getting shut out entirely in the last two Olympics despite their wealth of world-class talent.
"When you've got great players like (Evgeni) Malkin, (Pavel) Datsyuk and Ovechkin, everybody thinks they're going to carry them to the gold medal," said Igor Larionov, Russia's three-time Olympic medalist and Hall of Famer. "It will be interesting to see how they handle the pressure."
In his jaw-dropping 18th international competition for Russia, the stalwart Ovechkin tops a lineup that includes top NHL goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and KHL scoring stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov.
With a home-crowd push and the ostensible advantage of their familiarity with the wider international rink, the Russians are well-positioned — but history and expectation have weighed immensely on these players since they crashed out of Turin and Vancouver.
"We always hope that because there's only one puck, they're going to be in trouble," Selanne said with a smile. "They all need the puck, so that's what we always hope. I don't think anybody can match their talent, but it's a team sport, and there's still only one puck there."
Canada is equally loaded, and Crosby will wear the maple leaf for the first time since scoring the overtime winner against the Americans to end the Vancouver Olympics. But the favored Canadians still haven't won a gold medal outside of North America since 1952, and their lineup is bulky and physical, which could be a liability in a speed-based international game.
"I like our Canadian team," Gretzky said. "I think we have a lot of depth. To me, it's always an advantage when the best player in the world is on your team, and I think Crosby is the best player in the world."
The Americans don't have incredible star power, but they're quite fast — and they might have the tournament's best goaltending combo in Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick.
Sweden is loaded with offense led by the Sedin twins, and goalie Henrik Lundqvist is a proven international star.
Selanne and the Finns can't match others' depth, but they've won four medals in the last five Olympics — more than any other nation.
Jaromir Jagr leads a lively Czech team into his fifth Olympics, while the popular dark horse pick is Switzerland, which finished second at last year's world championships.
The gold-medal game at the Bolshoi Ice Dome on Feb. 23 is the grand finale to the Sochi Olympics. Russians fans are hoping its talented team holds up under the weight of a nation.
"Just like the Canada guys in Vancouver 2010, a lot of pressure," said Sergei Fedorov, a two-time Russian Olympian. "Maybe more. Our fans might be a little tougher."
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