- © RIA Novosti. Grigory Sokolov
© RIA Novosti. Grigory Sokolov
SOCHI, February 9 (R-Sport) - Home advantage isn't enough for Ilya Kovalchuk in his quest for a hockey gold medal at his fourth Olympics - he wants God on his side too.
A bronze at the 2002 Salt Lake City games is all Kovalchuk has to boast despite being part of a consistently high-powered Russian national team for 12 years.
Expectations are high that Zinetula Bilyaletdinov's men will finally break their post-Soviet gold duck this month.
"Everything is the same. It's my fourth Olympics and each time when we arrive people expect a lot from us," said the 30-year-old SKA St. Petersburg forward. "If God helps us, everything will turn out this time," he added.
"It's great pressure. We've seen how much Sochi changed from 2007, when we won the (right to hold the) Olympics. It's a great honor for everybody to be here."
The main obstacles along Russia's path to gold are reigning champion Canada, who trounced Russia 7-3 in the Vancouver quarterfinals, Sweden, the reigning world champion, and Finland, among others.
"We have a great team, and great team spirit here. We believe in ourselves and our coaches, so I think we have a good chance."
Three groups of four teams make up the men's tournament, which starts Thursday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome and ends with the gold medal game on February 23, the final day of the Games.
Russia is in with the United States, Slovenia and Slovakia; while Canada must deal with Finland, Norway and Austria. Sweden is in the mix with a strong Czech team, the Swiss and Latvia.
Kovalchuk shocked the hockey world over the summer by returning to Russia and walking away from a 15-year, $100 million contract he signed with New Jersey in 2010.
An 11-year NHL veteran, Kovalchuk retired with 417 goals and 399 assists in 816 games with the Devils and Atlanta Thrashers, who made him the league's first Russian No. 1 overall pick in 2001.
With SKA St. Petersburg he has 16 goals and 24 assists in 44 games, for ninth place in the KHL scoring charts.