Posted: Wednesday February 12, 2014 2:38 PM

Russia-Slovenia Preview

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Perhaps no other Russian athletes, in any sport at these Sochi Games, feel as much pressure to succeed than the men's hockey team.

The host nation begins the quest for its first hockey gold medal as an independent nation Thursday against Slovenia in Group A play.

From 1956-1988, the Soviet Union won seven gold, one silver and one bronze Olympic medals. Following the breakup of the Union, the Unified Team of former Soviet republics won gold in 1992, but in the five Winter Games that followed, the independent nation of Russia claimed a silver in 1998 and a bronze in 2002.

The Russians finished fourth in 2006 and a disappointing sixth four years ago in Vancouver after falling 7-3 to eventual gold-medalist Canada in the quarterfinals.

"The pressure is going to come 100 percent, NHL and Russian star Alex Ovechkin said.

''I don't like to lose, and especially if it's a big tournament, it's a Stanley Cup or Olympic Games or world championship, it's one or two days you're going to be down. ... It's bad, but nothing you can do about it.

"You have to forget about it and move forward.''

While the only wish of Russians players is to focus on the present, the national and world media, along with the country's citizens won't let them forget about the past Olympic shortcomings.

"(The) Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians than any other athletes in the whole world," said Washington's Ovechkin, who leads the NHL with 40 goals and has seven with two assists in two Olympic appearances.

"I don't think somebody (is) going to (think) their mission is done to be just on (an) Olympic team. Our mission is to try to win (a) gold medal."

These Russians might have the talent to challenge favorites Canada and Sweden in this tournament.

Joining Ovechkin again are Stanley Cup champion and 2012 Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, former NHL and current KHL star Ilya Kovalchuk and captain Pavel Datsyuk, who will play Thursday after struggling with an apparent knee injury the past two months for the Detroit Red Wings.

"With a captain like this one, we are not afraid of anything," Kovalchuk told the International Ice Hockey Federation's official website.

Goaltenders Semyon Varlamov of Colorado and Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky have a combined 48 wins this season.

Though a much-anticipated date with the United States awaits Russia on Saturday, it's main focus is on a Slovenian team making its first Olympic hockey appearance as an independent nation.

"This is a very important game," Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletinov - a defenseman on the 1980 Soviet squad stunned by the United States' gold medal-winning team in the semifinals - told the NHL's official website.

"It doesn't matter who the competitor is, in any case we'll have to prepare. This is the first game so we have to be ready. That's it."

Anze Kopitar, who has a team-leading 47 points for the Los Angeles Kings, is the only current NHL player on the Slovenian roster and will be coached by his father, Matjaz.

Though Slovenia has little chance of medaling, the younger Kopitar not only looks forward to representing his home country, but facing the host nation right off the bat.

"You feel like you're playing an away game," he said. "I'm sure (Russia has) been looking forward to this day for a long, long time too. The crowd's going to be fired up and we're going to be fired up, so it should be a good match."

 
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