GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The Russians are here, and they look every bit like the gold-medal favorites everyone thinks they are.
They’re stocked with NHL talent from Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Slava Voynov to Kontinental Hockey League star Nikita Gusev and are fresh off an 8-1 drubbing of the Korean team in exhibition play. Asked to describe the Russian team, Nikita Nesterov said it is a “red machine.”
“We’ll just play well and play Russian hockey,” Nesterov said Sunday as the Russians arrived at Gangneung Hockey Centre. “A lot of guys played (in the) NHL. It’s a good team, younger team. We’ll see what’s going on here.”
What’s expected to go on is for the Russian team in the nondescript “Olympic Athletes from Russia” red and white uniforms to roll over its competition to win the men’s hockey tournament. No other country has the high-end skill that Russia boasts, which has made it the team to beat.
“Everybody knows about the Russian team,” U.S. coach Tony Granato said. “I am, too, looking at it as the team with the most talented players. But you know that and everyone here knows that the team with the most talented players doesn’t win every tournament.”
Russia didn’t lack talent on home ice in Sochi in 2014 with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Bobrovsky but flamed out and lost in the quarterfinals. Nesterov said Ovechkin, who was outspoken about his desire to play in these Olympics even when the NHL decided not to participate, talked to players on the current team and told them to win for him.
They’re favored to do just that. Nesterov bristled at the term “favorite,” but the former Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens defenseman is plenty confident following the blowout of the Koreans.
“I think that we regained our game-time rhythm and the team is in excellent shape,” Nesterov said.
Korea goaltender Matt Dalton came away more impressed by the Russians than any other country.
“They’re a level, I think, above the rest,” Dalton said. “I’ve seen Canada, Sweden and Finland in Moscow and they’re all good, but especially those Russian forwards — their forwards are next level.”
So much talented gives coach Oleg Znarok options. Znarok told reporters after the exhibition game that 34-year-old Vasily Koshechkin will start in goal and Mikhail Grigorenko is expected to play on the first line with Kovalchuk and Datsyuk in Russia’s opener Wednesday against Slovakia.
“I made the roster so that anybody can replace anybody,” Znarok said. “Everybody can play with everybody else.”
Gusev scored twice and Russia never trailed against Korea, which was a display of firepower on the eve of the games. Even so, Znarok believes Russia has another level to get to — a scary prospect for every other team.
“I hope we still get better before the tournament starts,” he said. “It would be great if we get to 100 percent.”
Itching to get on the ice for his first Olympics, Nesterov figures he has nothing to complain about. That includes not being able to wear white, blue and red or the Russian coat of arms in what may be his country’s best chance at a gold medal.
“I don’t think about this,” Nesterov said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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