International Ice Hockey Federation

Echoes of Sochi

Echoes of Sochi

OAR expected to impress from the off

Published 14.02.2018 19:25 GMT+10 | Author Andy Potts
Echoes of Sochi
Opponents in Group B: Ilya Kovalchuk (Olympic Athletes from Russia), Brian Gionta (USA), Ladislav Nagy (Slovakia) and Jan Mursak (Slovenia). Photos: Matthew Manor, Jani Rajamaki, Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Group B turned into an exact repeat of one of the groups from Sochi - but not much else is familiar from four years ago. Let's find out more...

Olympic Athletes from Russia

Russia may be in their hearts, but officially it’s nowhere near the uniforms and paraphernalia that Oleg Znarok’s team brings to Korea. But while the 2018 Olympic roster might look unusual, closer inspection confirms that it’s very much a Znarok selection.

The SKA St. Petersburg coach has chosen 15 players from his club, and a further eight from CSKA Moscow. Just two Metallurg Magnitogorsk players, goalie Vasili Koshechkin and record-breaking forward Sergei Mozyakin, break the stranglehold of the KHL’s top two teams. That’s attracted criticism in some quarters, with the decision to overlook veteran defenceman Andrei Markov (Ak Bars Kazan) raising eyebrows. Another Ak Bars man, forward Vladimir Tkachyov, also has his advocates for a place in the team but failed to make the cut. Znarok, as always, is determined to stick with tried and trusted players, selecting on their ability to play his systems rather than an illustrious reputation elsewhere.

However, it’s not a roster long on Olympic experience. Sure, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk have seen it all, done it all, and were among the last Russian team to medal in 2002. But the only other returnee from Sochi is defenceman Vyacheslav Voinov, then of LA and now at SKA.

Otherwise, it’s a collection of Olympic rookies. From 20-year-old CSKA Moscow forward Kirill Kaprizov, making his first appearance at a senior adult tournament, to the veteran Mozyakin, repeatedly overlooked by other Russian coaches, this is a group of players stepping into the unknown. Scoring power should come from Nikita Gusev and Vadim Shipachyov – the former in fine form for SKA, the latter enjoying his hockey back in Russia after cashing in his chips in Vegas – while the blue line has sacrificed star names for youngsters like Artyom Zub and Vladislav Gavrikov, players who know each other’s game well.

And Gavrikov is certainly encouraged by lining up with familiar partners. "Our lines probably play better because of this,” he said. “There are guys who have played with each other for a long time together. The line assignments change from day to day, but pretty much every player can play with any other player."

 

USA

For the Americans, the pre-tournament talk is of redemption. A roster of players who (most of them) never expected an Olympic call-up in the best-on-best era have suddenly been handed a shot at the biggest prize in the game – and they’re determined to make the most of that chance.

Players like Brian O’Neill, a forward with Jokerit Helsinki of the KHL, described his call-up as a second lease of life for his hockey career. “I think we’re all re-energised by that,” he said. “Most of us have been in Europe and our careers have been up and down. We were given an opportunity we never expected, and I think that’s an advantage to us because it takes some of the pressure off and we can all enjoy it and relish the opportunity.” His Jokerit team-mate, goalie Ryan Zapolski, has been talking of the additional motivation he takes from the chance to prove the doubters wrong and take the Americans deep into the business end of the tournament.

That said, it would be something of a fairytale for a mix’n’match USA roster to make a big impact in Korea. While there is some solid experience and a scattering of KHL talent on the team, there are also four youngsters playing college hockey, D-man James Wisniewski recruited from the German second tier after a productive NHL career, and a 39-year-old captain, Brian Gionta, who arrives on the back of a mere five games this season. True, Gionta brings a wealth of experience – four goals in six games in Turin in 2006, more than 1,000 NHL outings in a career that saw him captain Montreal and Buffalo – but his call-up here feels like a last hurrah.

Head coach Tony Granato is the man responsible for getting the best out of this team. He was part of the coaching staff four years ago in Sochi, having also played at the 1988 Games, and combines his national team role with a job behind the bench at the University of Wisconsin. He’s determined to prove a point to this team’s critics, and also to produce a worthy tribute to the late Jim Johansen, the team’s GM, whose sudden death last month shocked the hockey world.

“Jim is with us, he will be a big part of our decisions on how we move forward,” Granato said. “It has been difficult for us as a group. We will play for him and we will play as hard as we can.”


Slovakia

Slovakia’s roster is light on Olympic experience, but still brings plenty of familiar names. There are even a few answers to those ‘whatever happened to …?’ questions. For example, there’s Ladislav Nagy, now 38, back on the big stage more than a decade after he was putting up a point a game for the Coyotes. Or Dominik Granak, twice a Gagarin Cup winner with Dynamo Moscow, making his Olympic debut at the age of 34 while playing on the blue line for Hradec Kralove in the Czech Republic. Then there’s Jan Laco, the goalie who famously blanked Russia in the group stage in Sochi, returning to the Olympic roster four years later.

But there’s also more than a smattering of fresh faces, with a clutch of young forwards ready for the first action at a major tournament. Milos Bubela, Michal Kristof, Patrik Lamper, Matej Paulovic and Matus Sukel have only featured in a handful of exhibition games apiece thus far before getting the call-up to Korea.

That’s partly down to incoming head coach Craig Ramsay. While many teams make the Olympics the culmination of a four-year project, Slovakia finds itself beginning a new era with the 2018 Games. Ramsay is looking to rebuild the nation’s fortunes at a time when many of its old heroes are at the end of their careers. That means a change of style, a more North American approach, and an injection of pace into the Slovak game.

Outside of Slovakia, expectations for this roster are not high – but for Nagy, preparing for his first and surely last shot at the Olympics, there’s no reason not to shoot for medals. “Good goaltending and playing good defence will be the key,” he said. “We can score goals, and if we play good defence then anything can happen.”


Slovenia

With Anze Kopitar unavailable, Slovenia must do without its most celebrated player. However, if life without the undisputed poster boy of Slovenian hockey is a challenge, the country can at least point to plenty of continuity on a roster otherwise unaffected by the NHL’s absence. According to forward Robert Sabolic, the roster is roughly 90% of the one that surprised everyone by reaching the quarter-finals in Sochi - and that can be an advantage when Slovenia's rivals are adjusting to life without the NHL.

But, while continuity is a good thing for a tight-knit roster, the absence of Kopitar is a big blow. “I know he’s just one player, but I feel like the whole team performs a lot better when he is there,” said Jan Mursak, the only player on the roster with NHL experience from his time in Detroit. “He leads this team very well and it’s going to be different without him.”

Players like Murcak and Sabolic, who bring a wealth of KHL experience, will play a big role in Korea as the Slovenes look to spring another surprise. The likes of Ziga Jeglic and Rok Ticar have also played plenty of hockey in Russia’s cross-border league after getting their chance following their country’s 2014 success. But head coach Kari Savolainen, appointed last year, also has a few new faces. These include Anze Kuralt, a 26-year-old forward enjoying a prolific season with Amiens in the French Championship, and D-man Klemen Pretnar, fresh from helping Yunost Minsk lift the Continental Cup last month.

 

Format

The format remains the same like in Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. The group winner will progress directly to the quarter-finals, as will the best runner-up from the three groups. The remaining teams will go to a qualification round where four knock-out match-ups will produce the other four quarter-finalists. Click here for details on the format.

 

Predictions

In Sochi last time we had the exact same quartet contesting Group A, with the USA coming out on top thanks to a shootout win over Russia. But that was an NHL-powered American roster, and the Slovak team that frustrated the 2014 host also looked rather stronger than the PyeongChang edition. So, realistically, this one is there for the taking for OAR, with the Americans likely to have too much for Slovak and Slovenian rosters robbed of their biggest names. With the Russians unlikely to be plagued with any perceived lack of teamwork this time around, and nurturing a persecution complex, it’s hard to see past Znarok & Co. marching directly to the last eight and avoiding an awkward ambush on the way to the medal games.

 

Back to Overview