GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — They trudged from their locker room to the practice rink with expressions as blank as their jerseys.
The Russians enter the Olympic men’s hockey tournament with their usual businesslike fashion, insisting they are not bothered by the nondescript uniforms and missing coat of arms on their chests. They are officially “Olympic Athletes from Russia” as declared by the International Olympic Committee in the doping scandal fallout, but this is still the same stoic, sometimes prickly group determined to win the gold medal.
“We’re still Team Russia,” forward Mikhail Grigorenko said Tuesday. “Everybody knows where we’re coming from and they can’t take away who we are just from the jerseys and all that. I think we still have a pretty good team. We have one goal here: to win. So we’ll go out there and try to do everything we can to do that.”
From the straightforward, no-nonsense approach to the intense, full-speed practices, this is the Russian national team. The style of play has changed from the Cold War era, though this might as well be the Red Army team.
In fact, eight players come from CSKA Moscow, which draws its roots to those storied Soviet teams, plus 15 more from SKA Saint Petersburg, which is far and away the best team in the Kontinental Hockey League. Having 21 of 22 skaters from the same two teams also gives the Russians the kind of chemistry that marked those dominant teams of the past — a chemistry most other teams in the Olympics don’t have.
“You play with a lot of the guys on the same team so you move better with them on the ice,” forward Sergei Shirokov said. “Everyone understands each other perfectly. There is a good atmosphere in the team now.”
It’s a familiar atmosphere. Even though former NHL players Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Slava Voynov are the only players back from the group that disappointed on home ice in Sochi, the style of play and the trademark Russian firepower is there.
“We’re going to skate with the puck pretty hard, not play in D-zone,” former Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Alexei Marchenko said. “Try to play in O-zone, out-shift the guys, so just keep the puck in O-zone, shoot more.”
Kovalchuk believes the power play will be the key, and it’s still dangerous even without Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, who are missing the Olympics along with all other NHL players. Russia does few things better than developing offensively gifted forwards, and top Minnesota Wild prospect Kirill Kaprizov is the latest off that assembly line.
There are questions about goaltending. Veteran Vasily Koshechkin will get the nod in the opener Wednesday against Slovakia over New York Rangers top goaltending prospect Igor Shestyorkin and Islanders top prospect Ilya Sorokin, though either 22-year-old could become the starter at some point.
And again there’s pressure because the Russians are the favorites in the absence of NHL players.
“Maybe it’s a little less pressure because we don’t play at home, but we’ll see,” Kovalchuk said. It’s always pressure on the Russian team. The fans expect a lot, and we will try to be more successful.”
Like other athletes in South Korea this month, the Russians certainly have some extra motivation from the IOC’s decision to sanction Russia and make everyone cleared to compete do so under a neutral flag.
“Everyone knows that we’re in a tough spot here that we’re not going to have our flag or our national anthem or anything like that,” Grigorenko said. “We’re obviously going to play for that. We’re really, I guess, inspired by that to play for all of our country.”
Some players sound almost robotic in brushing off the team name. Defenseman Nikita Nesterov said “it doesn’t matter” and Marchenko simply shook his head when asked if it bothered him.
“Everybody knows who we are and we know,” forward Sergei Shirokov said. “That’s most important.”