This isn't your Uncle Boris' Russian team
TORINO, Italy -- That "pop, pop, pop" sound heard during Russia's surprising 5-3 loss to Slovakia on Wednesday night might at first been interpreted as the familiar sounds of a Russian team coming unhinged at the seams.
But less than 24 hours later, the sounds from the Russians' dominating 5-0 win over a solid Swedish squad was a definite, "Uh oh," as in the sound of the rest of the field recognizing that this is not your Uncle Boris' Russian national team.
Led by young stars Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, Russia's win over Sweden defied the notion that it is the same emotionally fragile team that has had a tendency to become disconnected when the going got tough at these kinds of tournaments.
"I think Malkin had a tremendous game today, he was probably one of the best players on our team," said defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, referring to the 19-year-old who, less than two months ago, was playing at the World Junior Championships.
"Seeing those guys practice and play, it's fun to be around them. If they're going to play with a spark like that, you know we have a good chance," said Kasparaitis, who is playing in his fourth Olympic Games.
It's early, to be sure, just two games into the five-game round robin. But the Russian win over the Swedes, who started the tournament with a 7-2 handling of Kazakhstan, was illuminating on a number of fronts.
It provided the first indication that there is a difference from previous Russian teams, which were marked as much by in-fighting, defections and internal politicking as they were for their considerable talent.
"I think right now it's coming back. Any tournament we play, you know guys are concentrating more on winning and bringing back good hockey to the Russian people," Kasparaitis said. "Before, people used to come and, I think, just coast around and just be there. But right now, I think guys want to be here and want to work hard and just play good hockey."
Few doubt the talent the Russians bring to the table in this tournament. But that is always the case. What was in question, especially through Wednesday's opener against the surprising 2-0 Slovaks, was the character, the chemistry, that will be so crucial when the playoff rounds begin Wednesday.
In their first game, the Russians blew leads of 2-1 and 3-2, and then allowed two Marian Gaborik goals in the final four minutes to drop their opener. In shutting down the Swedes, the Russians got key goaltending from Evgeni Nabokov, playing in his first Olympic game, and timely scoring, including three goals in the second period to break open a close game.
"I think it doesn't matter. We've got the young guys, old guys, we've got guys who play in the NHL who play in Russia, it doesn't matter. Just right now, we're one team, and we've got one thing, to win these games and that's what we're doing," said Buffalo Sabres sniper Maxim Afinogenov, who stepped out of the penalty box and scored on a breakaway to close out the scoring in the third period.
"We do not worry about what people are saying about us. Who cares what people say and what they think?" added Alexei Kovalev, who has two goals, including the winner that broke a scoreless tie 7:13 into the second period Thursday.
Kovalev is right, of course.
The question isn't what people outside the dressing room think, but what the thinking is inside.
Players like Kovalchuk understand where the Russian team has been, his father feeding him a steady diet of Russia's rich history via videotape, fueling the young Kovalchuk's desire to excel at the game. Kovalchuk, 23, playing in his second Olympics, also understands where the team is now, or at least, how it's perceived.
"That's good for us. If nobody respects us, we're going to show the results on the ice and after, everybody give us their respect," he said.
There is also the contagious exuberance of players like Ovechkin, who scored for the second day in a row, this time just 52 seconds after Kovalev opened the scoring midway through the second period, happily throwing himself into his teammates' arms.
"We have young guys," and here, Ovechkin paused, lest he insult his elders, "and medium guys. We have Kasparaitis, he plays in fourth Olympic Games. Me and Malkin, lots of guys who play first time. But we don't feel different. Right now, we are a team and we keep together and play hard."
The second interesting element coming out of Thursday's win are the parallels that are starting to emerge between this team and the Russians' last gold medal-winning team in 1992.
That Olympic Games marked a turning point for the mighty Russian machine. The team was in transition with only a handful of veterans and a host of young, unproven players, like Kovalev, Sergei Zubov, Alexei Zhitnik and Nikolai Borschevsky.
The team, still led by legendary coach Viktor Tikhonov, entered the tournament in Albertville a definite underdog.
"That's what happened actually. When we came to the '92 Olympics, I don't think anybody thought we were going to win because we had only two veteran players and the rest of us were 20-, 19-year-old kids," said Kasparaitis, who played in all eight games en route to a 3-1 win over Canada in the gold medal game.
Although they have been on the medal podium in each Olympics since, they have not been back to the gold medal riser.
"That was a huge win for our team. I think we were just happy to be at the Olympic Games at that time, but we end up winning," Kasparaitis said. "And maybe, hopefully, this year it's going to be this for our team."
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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