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'Great 8' set to lead Russians

Updated: 2014-01-10 08:10
By Agencies in Moscow ( China Daily)

Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin will lead Russia's hockey team at next month's Sochi Olympics, while veteran defenseman Sergey Gonchar and forward Alexander Semin were surprise omissions from the 25-man roster.

Ovechkin, known as 'The Great 8', leads the National Hockey League with 31 goals in 40 games.

He is among 15 NHLers named to the squad, but head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov is also banking on the strength of the domestic Kontinental Hockey League.

Ten players made the cut from the Russian-dominated league, one more than Bilyaletdinov's predecessor, Vyacheslav Bykov, selected four years ago for the Vancouver Games.

Ilya Kovalchuk, a former NHLer with the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils who joined SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL last year, is among the top players from Russian teams.

Along with Ovechkin, those drawn from the NHL include Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings and Evgeny Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, both dangerous offensive players.

Russia was knocked out in the quarterfinals in Vancouver in 2010.

Ovechkin said the team certainly will feel pressure to win on home ice, but he also expects that to be an advantage.

"Olympics are probably more important for Russians than any other athletes in the whole world," Ovechkin said on a conference call.

"Since I was a little kid, and since everybody on our team was a little kid, the dream was playing in the Olympics, especially if we have a chance to represent our country in Russia.

"It's unbelievable and it's going to be a great thing. It's a strength for us. I don't think anybody is going to (think) their mission is done to be just on the Olympic team. Our mission is to try to win the gold medal."

Dynamo Moscow's key player, the hard-working, experienced 31-year-old forward Sergei Soin, was a surprise inclusion.

"In terms of Sergei Soin, just like Alexander Eremenko, he's a two-time Gagarin Cup (KHL playoffs) winner and won't be intimidated by high-profile players," said Bilyaletdinov.

"He will be able to help out when we are shorthanded and will help to limit the offensive play of our opponents," he added on the official website of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia.

Russia also has high hopes for Valeri Nichushkin, 18, who signed a three-year contract with the Dallas Stars last year after helping Traktor Chelyabinsk reach the KHL final.

"Nichushkin was called up after we saw him play for the Dallas Stars during our trip to North America (in November)," said Bilyaletdinov.

"At the moment, he is in excellent form. You could say we are putting our faith in him, but he is an exceedingly talented player and I'm sure he'll justify his selection."

The Sochi Games are the first Olympics to be held in Russia since Moscow 1980 and the host will be under pressure to deliver.

Hockey is among the sports where Russia is seen as having a strong chance of winning a gold medal.

The Soviet Union won seven men's hockey gold medals in the nine Olympics held between 1956 and 1988 but Russia has failed to win an Olympic medal since 2002, when it claimed bronze in Salt Lake City.

In the preliminary round, Russia will face Slovakia and the United States after its first Group A game against Slovenia on Feb 13.

The men's competition takes place from Feb 12-23, with No 1-ranked Canada the defending gold medal champion.

 'Great 8' set to lead Russians

Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin controls the puck in front of Colin Greening of the Ottawa Senators during Ottawa's 3-1 victory in Washington on Dec 30. Marc DesRosiers / USA Today Sports

(China Daily 01/10/2014 page24)