By Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber

 

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - The absence of NHL players and the doping scandal that has ensnared Russia will only add to the pressure facing their men's Olympic ice hockey team, who arguably have the best chance in decades to win gold.

 

The team, who are officially known in Pyeongchang as Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) after the country was banned for a doping scandal resulting from the last Games in Sochi, were once a powerhouse of ice hockey during the Soviet era.

 

The USSR won medals, seven of them gold, at nine successive Winter Olympics between 1956 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

 

The Unified team won gold in 1992 but since the introduction of NHL players at the Nagano Games in 1998 Russia have won only two medals -- a silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002.

 

The situation has troubled Russian officials, who have pledged to devote more attention to the sport's development in a bid to return to the glory of its Soviet era.

The NHL's decision not to release players for the Olympic tournament in South Korea, however, has arguably helped the Russian team, who are drawn from the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), which is widely considered the world's second best.

"In the KHL we have lots of players on first lines – forwards and defencemen," Vladislav Tretyak, a former Soviet-era goaltender who is now president of the Russian hockey federation, told Reuters.

"But the foreign (KHL) players will be at the Olympics and play against us. It will be a tough fight, especially against us because they play twice as hard when it's Russia."

Captain Pavel Datsyuk, seen as a future NHL Hall of Famer, is still playing at 39 in the KHL and he was wary about the strength of opposition his side would likely face.

"Finns, Sweden, Czech, the U.S., they're really good," Kovalchuk told reporters last month. "They might have a chance."

Despite Russia's hesitation to acknowledge their strength -- perhaps to avoid embarrassment if they miss the podium -- the country's rivals have said their team are the ones to watch.

"A lot of people say they're the ones that have the most experience, the best careers, so they will certainly be a team at the top of the list when you look at it," U.S. head coach Tony Granato told reporters last month.

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Those pre-tournament predictions, however, could mean nothing in the heat of Olympic competition.

Russia, playing in front of a partisan crowd at the 2014 Sochi Games, gave up three unanswered goals to Finland after having scored first in the quarter-final, ending their tournament.

They were thumped 7-3 by Canada at the same stage in the Vancouver Games in 2010, prompting goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to compare the Canadians to "gorillas coming out of a cage".

Hockey analysts suggested the appeal of the Pyeongchang tournament would not suffer even if the quality of play declined in the absence of NHL players.

"Winning a tournament of the magnitude of the Olympics is pretty significant when it's the best-on-best," hockey analyst Craig Button of Canada's TSN channel told Reuters.

"You could put some caveat on that and say that the NHL players weren't there. But they weren't there in '94, '92, in '88 or '84 either.

"I don't think that because the NHL players are not there that the Games should be considered any less."

The Russian team, who face Slovakia in their opening Group B match on Wednesday, warmed up for the Olympics with an emphatic 8-1 win over hosts South Korea in a friendly in the South Korean city of Anyang on Saturday, the Russian hockey federation said.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, additional reporting by Dan Burns; Editing by Greg Stutchbury and Clare Fallon)