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ovechkinweight.jpgAlex Ovechkin may be running out of time to win a best-on-best title for Russia. USATSI

When you look at today’s game, the influence of the Soviet teams of the 1970s and 1980s is abundantly apparent. They were the ones that proved hockey could be more than a game of brutality, that hockey could be won with skill, speed and precision over anything else.

Anatoly Tarasov, essentially the father of Russian hockey, is as influential a coach as there has ever been in the game. He helped put the Soviets on top, racking up Olympic medals and World Championships with relative ease.

The Russian game is still based primarily on skill, with all five skaters on the ice sharing one goal — scoring as much as humanly possible. But in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the significant titles have been few and far between.

Russia still collects World Championships, though not nearly with the same frequency. However, when it comes to best-on-best tournaments, the ones that involve NHL players, their success has been scant.

The last time Russians or Soviets won a best-on-best tournament was 1981, a year after the heartbreaking Miracle on Ice and four years before Alexander Ovechkin was born. That was at the Canada Cup, which was basically the predecessor to the World Cup of Hockey.

In the years since, the Russians or Soviets have been completely skunked when the rest of the world sends their best. That includes three Canada Cups and two previous World Cups, but most concerning is no gold medals in the Olympics since 1992, when the former Soviet Union competed as the “Unified Team.”

NHL players started competing in the Olympics in 1998. Over that span, Russia has one medal — bronze in 2002. They played for a medal in 2006 as well, losing the bronze medal game, but the last two Olympic performances have been downright embarrassing.

The real low point had to be on Russia’s home ice. The Russian men’s ice hockey team was the crown jewel of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. They had hoped to ride home-ice advantage to an international resurgence and show of strength. It was all over after just five games.

Russia was bounced from the Olympics by eventual bronze medalist Finland in the quarterfinal. Ovechkin finished the tournament with just a goal and assist for a team that never seemed to find its rhythm offensively.

It has been a prolonged fall from international dominance. And now, with one of the best players the country has ever produced still in his prime, the clock is ticking to reverse course.

Ovechkin celebrated his 31st birthday Saturday. While he has been one of the world’s best players since the second he stepped into the NHL and remains such, time catches up to everyone. Ovechkin has had proud moments in the Russian jersey, but the failures in best-on-best tournaments has overlapped and overshadowed them.

It’s certainly not his fault alone for the way things have turned out internationally for the Russians in recent years, but he is the face of the national team now and he knows better than anyone else, the nation is looking to him to put an end to this. It obviously matters a lot to him to be the one to deliver, too.

Nothing will trump a gold medal at the Olympics as far as Russia is concerned, but Ovechkin and company do have a relatively big opportunity to make a statement at the World Cup of Hockey. Even with a couple of gimmicky teams, there is no question that this World Cup features the best talent the hockey world has to offer right now.

With that comes the opportunity to prove that Russia belongs on the same mantle as the world’s best again. And it might be their last chance to do so for a little while.

The NHL may not allow their players to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. It’s a notion that rankles Ovechkin, who has already said he will play for Russia in 2018 no matter what. But if the league passes on 2018, Ovechkin may be able to get that Olympic gold medal he so covets, but it won’t come against the world’s best players.

Knowing that, you’d have to think there’s some amount of urgency from this Russian side to have success at this World Cup and try to get things back on track.

Considering the circumstances, this may be Ovechkin’s last best chance to lead Russia to win a title in a best-on-best tournament. Again, it’s not going to mean as much as an Olympic medal, but it sends a message that Russia is very much still a factor on the world stage. Ovechkin would love nothing more than to be the messenger, too.

He also has a pretty solid cast around him to help make this happen. While some of the national team stalwarts of recent years are not there, players like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov, there is a new generation of Russian talent that is taking the league by storm.

panarinrussia.jpgArtemi Panarin is part of the next wave of Russian NHL stars. USATSI

Five Russian players were among the top-25 scorers in the NHL last year. There was Ovechkin, who ranked 15th with 71 points and first with 50 goals, but the other four are 24 or younger.

Artemi Panarin won the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year and tied with countryman Evgeny Kuznetsov for ninth in the NHL with 77 points. Vladimir Tarasenko was 13th with 74 points, while Nikita Kucherov checked in at 21st in the league with 66 points. Four of those players – Ovechkin (50), Tarasenko (40), Panarin (30), Kucherov (30) – also finished among the top 20 NHL players in goals scored.

And let’s not forget Ovechkin’s contemporary, Evgeni Malkin. He averaged better than a point-per-game in an injury-shortened season, showing that he is still very much one of the dominant offensive forces in the game.

The Russian forward group is impressive, to say the least. Their blue line is a little more suspect, but if they get competent goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky, who looked sharp in pre-tournament action, they’re going to have a chance in this tournament.

With that new generation of forwards supplementing Ovechkin, Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, Russia has a lineup that can compete.

As we’ve already seen, Canada is going to be tough to beat and no team can afford missteps in the preliminary round like those of Team USA on opening day, but this Russian team has a good chance at putting a stop to a streak that is older than anyone on the roster save for Datsyuk and Andrei Markov, who were toddlers at the time.

It won’t take long to find out if they have what it takes. Russia takes on Sweden, the team most favor to finish atop Group B, Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET in their 2016 World Cup debut.

Nobody said ending the drought would be easy.


Source: CBS Sports Headlines / World Cup may be Alex Ovechkin’s best chance to help end Russia’s title drought