Team Russia capsule
Sun Media

Sun Prediction: 4th

Can the Russian Rocket help lead his country to gold?

That's the biggest question as Team Russia prepares to open the Olympics with former NHL great Pavel Bure leading the squad in the role of general manager.

While the Russians have had trouble getting players, the club is hoping with Bure and former NHLer Sergei Nemchinov running the show they will be able to get their house in order.

"I don't know if having Pavel Bure is going to make that big a difference," Russian captain Alexei Yashin said. "I believe a lot of it is the fact that we've got players who want to play for the country. They want to be part of it. I am still honoured to play for my country and to have the chance to win a gold medal. That's what I want to make happen. We feel like we've got a good chance."

A big piece of the puzzle will be missing for the Russians in Turin. Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who agreed to play in the Olympics after a discussion with Bure about his role in Turin, has a knee injury which will keep him out of action for six weeks. Khabibulin, signed by the Chicago Blackhawks as a free agent in the off-season, can't afford to risk further damage to his knee and he won't be able to take part. San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabokov will be installed as the No. 1 and the Russians have to hope he is able to stay healthy.

"We should be okay with Nabokov in the net for us at the Olympics," Russian defenceman Anton Volchenkov said. "Losing a guy like Khabibulin is going to be tough, but Nabokov has been playing well for San Jose. I think Khabibulin wasn't playing so well for Chicago."

Yes, the Russians have brought home medals in 1998 and 2002, but they haven't been the right colour. They want gold.

It would mean a lot to the program, which has had a tough time because it has always been surrounded by politics.

"There's always politics in Russian hockey," Volchenkov said. "That's part of the game."

But the Russians have plenty to feel good about. Ranked fifth by the IIHF, everybody will be watching the performance of Ilya Kovalchuk and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin.

Kovalchuk, the Atlanta Thrashers superstar, is regarded by many as one of the most thrilling players in the league. He's a playmaker with a great shot who can score goals while the Captials' Ovechkin is a top candidate for the NHL's rookie-of-the-year title.

Yashin, who plays for the New York Islanders, said the prospects are exciting.

"We've got some great players," he said. "If we play the way we're capable of playing, then we've got as good a chance as anybody to win gold."