Russian men's hockey team move past hype, get serious in preparation for Slovenia
Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin skates off of the ice after participating in a team workout at the Kettler Iceplex in Arlington, Va., on Jan. 8, 2014. Ovechkin will be the face of Russia at next month's Olympics. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, February 12, 2014 4:43AM EST
SOCHI, Russia -- Since they arrived at the Winter Olympics, the Russian hockey players have been treated like rock stars. Now it's time to play some music.
An hour-long practice Wednesday signalled a shift for the Russians from the hype and attention and talk about the pressure to the game itself in preparation for the tournament opener Thursday against Slovenia.
"I think we have to put everything behind us and just focus on the little details of the game," defenceman Andrei Markov said. "If we're going to play like a team, everything is going to be OK."
There was a serious tone and workmanlike attitude at this practice, which was split between regular and special teams work. It was the opposite of Wednesday's news conference, which was a celebration of the team and the grandeur of this event.
"We had a good time to have some practice, talk to players, have meetings and then see what's going on here," said coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov.
Russia's power play got in a decent amount of work. The powerful top unit unsurprisingly features Alex Ovechkin along with Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Radulov and Markov.
"All five guys very good players," Bilyaletdinov said, making one of the first great understatements of these Olympics.
In 3,185 combined NHL games, those five have scored 420 power-play goals, of which Ovechkin has 142. Offence shouldn't be lacking for Russia, especially on the power play.
"We have great players, great skills, but bottom line we have to score the goals," Markov said. "If we're going to work like unit of five and we're going to be on the same page we're going to have to score the goals. We have to shoot the puck. We have to get traffic. We have to battle."
Plenty of battling went on in practice for the skaters, as goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky waited to hear who will start against Slovenia. Bilyaletdinov said he and the coaching staff "have some ideas" but would let the goalies know later in the day.
Bobrovsky seemed to have already found the right balance between soaking up being in Sochi for a host Olympics and worrying about his job.
We had a few days to adapt to the time and the atmosphere. Atmosphere wonderful here, so it's really good to be here," Bobrovsky said. "I try to focus on stop the puck, that's my main goal."
One of Russia's other areas of focus is Datsyuk's health, considering the star centre missed over a month of the NHL season with a lower-body injury. Bilyaletdinov said his captain looked "OK" at practice.
"Of course, it is hard for him," Bilyaletdinov said. "He hasn't played for a long time, and then played only two matches. It's not easy for him, but I think a player of such a level will find his inner strength and get in shape quickly."
Finding an inner strength shouldn't be difficult for Russia given the grand motivation of playing on home ice.
Transitioning from thinking about that to hockey is the task now, which defenceman Slava Voynov considers an easy one.
"I have focused only on hockey long ago, and all this attention is kind of secondary for me now," Voynov said.