New York, Jan 31 (Reuters) - The U.S. men's Olympic hockey team know they face a big challenge to come away from Pyeongchang with a medal and will face the biggest obstacle to that goal in the first round - a "dangerous" group of Russians playing under the Olympic flag.
"If you look at the Russian roster they have the biggest names of players that have played internationally and obviously in the NHL and are stars," Team USA head coach Tony Granato said Wednesday on a media call ahead of the team's departure for South Korea.
Team USA, fifth in the International Ice Hockey Federation rankings, face the same opening round slate they did in the Sochi games in 2014 - Slovenia, Slovakia and the Russians. They went 3-0 against that competition four years ago, with a lineup loaded with NHL talent.
But with no NHL players participating this year, the Americans head to South Korea with a roster formed mostly of journeyman pros playing in Europe, and odds makers don't see them as medal favourites.
They open against No. 15-ranked Slovenia on Feb. 14 before facing back-to-back games against much stiffer talent: a Slovakia team that beat them 2-1 at last year's Deutschland Cup and a Russian squad headlined by the likes of future NHL Hall of Famer Pavel Datsyuk, who played 14 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and won two Stanley Cups.
"So you look at Datsyuk as being the big guy, but there are (Ilya) Kovalchuk and plenty of other ones there that have played in Olympics and that are world-class superstars," Granato said.
Datsyuk - and the rest of his Russian team mates - now play in the Kontinental Hockey League, seen as the world's top pro league after the NHL.
Russia was banned from sending a national Olympic team to Pyeongchang following a doping scandal connected to the Sochi games, but individual athletes determined to be clean of performance-enhancing drugs can compete under the Olympic flag.
Kovalchuk, who played 12 NHL seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets) and New Jersey Devils, is the KHL's scoring leader this year for St Petersburg, where he plays with Datsyuk. The two will be appearing in their fifth Olympic hockey tournament.
Team USA goalie Ryan Zapolski is well aware of the talent he will face when the puck drops against Russia on Feb 17. Zapolski is the starting netminder for Finland's Jokerit in the KHL, where he has the league's sixth-best save percentage and the fourth-lowest goals against average at 1.73.
"I don't think anyone scares me particularly, but they have a lot of skill," Zapolski said.
"It's going to be a challenge playing a team like that this year," Zapolski said. "They're roster is dangerous for sure, but I think we have a team that can compete with anybody so it's not really a team that we're going to be scared of."
Reporting by Dan Burns, editing by Ed Osmond