You have to go back to 1992 to find the last time a Russian team managed to take home an Olympic gold medal in men's hockey. Since the NHL started taking part in the tournament in 1998, the powerful Russians have managed just a silver (1998) and a bronze (2002) and have come up empty medal-wise in the past two Olympic tournaments. All of which adds to the tremendous burden on Team Russia in Sochi, the first time the Olympics have been held on Russian soil.
Five things to watch
1. Let's start with the pressure and the ability of this team to avoid the potential disruptive nature of the idea that nothing but a gold will do. Canada faced this pressure head-on in Vancouver, and to a lesser extent in Salt Lake City in 2002, and managed to overcome early-tournament bumps to win gold in both cases. The Russians have historically not responded well to such pressure. They folded against Canada in the quarterfinal in Vancouver, losing 7-3. Go back to 2000 when a talented Russian team imploded and finished 11th at the World Championships in St. Petersburg, and Russia could come up with only a bronze when the tournament was held in Moscow in 2007. But all of those moments pale in comparison to the expectations for this team on this stage. Do players like Pavel Datsyuk, who will captain the Russian team, Alex Ovechkin and erstwhile NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk have enough of a presence to lead this team through whatever pitfalls it might encounter?
2. Not only do the Russians have to worry about how they will respond to the pressure of playing on home soil, they'll have to deal with the collision of cultures within their own lineup. Nine of the 25 players named to the team are playing in the Kontinental Hockey League this season. Six of those players are forwards, which presents another question critical to this team's chances of success: Will there be enough scoring depth to keep pace with the other big-boy nations in this tournament? Yes, Datsyuk, Ovechkin (the runaway leader in goals scored in the NHL this season) and Evgeni Malkin may be able to provide enough offense on their own, but will Kovalchuk, Alexander Radulov, Viktor Tikhonov or Alexander Svitov be able to provide enough depth, which would seem to be critical when playing against strong defensive teams like Canada, the U.S. or Sweden? More to the point, how will the coaching staff manage to integrate the two disparate groups of players -- one used to an NHL style of play in smaller rinks and the other used to the bigger Olympic-sized rinks? It didn't happen in Vancouver but maybe the process will be easier this time around.