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Saturday, January 5, 2002
Russian power and unity returns

ESPN hockey analyst Bill Clement breaks down the team offense and team defense, while Darren Pang looks at the goaltending of the six teams that have qualified for the final round of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Bill Clement
Bill Clement
For the past 10 years, the biggest issue confronted by every team that has taken the ice to represent Russia has been much like the No. 1 issue their homeland is struggling with -- UNITY. But what was once a weakness will now be a strength in Salt Lake. Why? Leadership! Because of his legendary excellence as a player, head coach Slava Fetisov has the respect of everyone as well as the leadership skills to match the respect. Unlike past Russian coaches, he also played against many of the players his team will face and is currently coaching against them as Larry Robinson's assistant in New Jersey. Add 41-year-old Igor Larionov to the lineup and if anyone tunes Fetisov out, Larionov will tune them back in.

Team Offense
Yikes! A veritable "who's who" of flash and dash at the forward position. Russia has no fewer than seven human highlight packages: Pavel Bure, Maxim Afinogenov, Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Kovalev, Ilya Kovalchuk, Sergei Samsonov and Alexei Yashin. Scoring ability is an obvious strength. You might notice that some of these names jump off the page as "one way" players -- and you would be right. But Team Russia is built like every successful team from Russia's glory days -- with their defensive forwards at the center position. Fedorov, Larionov and Andrei Nikolishin are three of the finest defensive centers in the NHL.

Team Defense
While Russia's roster features some big names, team defense will be their weakness. That's not to say their defensemen aren't capable, it's just that even with three good defensive centers, the rest of the forwards are "offensive minded" players. As a result, Russia's defensemen will often be left to fend for themselves. Darius Kasparaitis will "krunch" and Boris Mironov and Dimitri Yushkevich are as sturdy as sycamore trees. And while it's not likely Russia's forwards will need help with their offensive game, Sergei Gonchar and Oleg Tverdovsky will help out anyway. If Nikolai Khabibulin brings his "A" game to Salt Lake, Russia will contend for gold.

Darren Pang
Darren Pang
For Team Russia, Nikolai Khabibulin is the only name to know. It's highly unlikely Evgeni Nabokov will win his arbitration case because he previously played for Kazakhstan. The Russians have as good a chance to win as anyone else and Khabibulin is one of the main reasons. He can win a game on his own. He has been one of the top five goalies in the NHL all season, so he should be hot going into the tournament. In a short tournament, the goalie is like a pitcher in the way he gives his team a chance to win and intimidates the other team. Khabibulin has the experience of playing on the larger ice and is a terrific butterfly goalie. He has great reflexes, too, which is a must when the puck is moved from the outside lanes to the slot, an area where you need good movement and quickness.