By Jason Bush
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin was named in Russia's squad for next month's Olympics in Sochi while veteran defenseman Sergey Gonchar and forward Alexander Semin were surprise omissions from the 25-man roster.
Forward Ovechkin is among 15 NHL players named in the squad, but Russia's head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov is also banking on the strength of the domestic Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
Ten players made the cut from the Russian-dominated competition, one more than Bilyaletdinov's predecessor, Vyacheslav Bykov, selected four years ago for the Vancouver Games.
Ilya Kovalchuk, a former NHL forward with the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils who joined SKA St Petersburg in the KHL last year, is among the top players from Russian teams.
Along with Ovechkin, those drawn from the NHL include Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings and Evgeny Malkin of the Pittsburg Penguins, both strong attacking players.
Dynamo Moscow's key player, the hard-working, experienced 31-year-old forward Sergei Soin, was a surprise inclusion.
"In terms of Sergei Soin, just like Alexander Eremenko, he's a two-time Gagarin Cup (KHL playoffs) winner and won't be intimidated by high profile players," said Bilyaletdinov.
"He will be able to help out when we are shorthanded and will help to limit the offensive play of our opponents," he added on the official website of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia (www.fhr.ru).
Russia also have high hopes for Valeri Nichushkin, 18, who signed a three-year contract with the Dallas Stars last year after helping Traktor Chelyabinsk reach the KHL final.
"Valeri Nichushkin was called up after we saw him play for the Dallas Stars during our trip to North America (in November)," added Bilyaletdinov.
"At the moment, he is in excellent form. You could say we are putting our faith in him, but he is an exceedingly talented player and I'm sure he'll justify his selection."
The Sochi Games are the first Olympics to be held in Russia since Moscow 1980 and the hosts will be under pressure to deliver.
Ice hockey is among the sports where Russia is seen as having a strong chance of winning a gold medal.
Russia's men's ice hockey team are number three in the International Ice Hockey Federation rankings behind Sweden and Finland, having been top for the previous four years.
The Soviet Union won seven men's ice hockey gold medals in the nine Olympics held between 1956 and 1988, but have failed to win an Olympic medal since 2002, when it gained bronze in Salt Lake City.
In the preliminary round, Russia will face Slovakia and the United States after their first Group A game against Slovenia on February 13. The men's competition takes place from February 12-23.
Netminders: Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets), Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche), Alexander Eremenko (Dynamo Moscow).
Defence: Anton Belov (Edmonton Oilers), Vyacheslav Voynov (Los Angeles Kings), Alexei Yemelin (Montreal Canadiens), Andrei Markov (Montreal Canadiens), Evgeni Medvedev (Ak Bars Kazan), Nikita Nikitin (Columbus Blue Jackets), Ilya Nikulin (Ak Bars Kazan), Fedor Tyutin (Columbus Blue Jackets).
Forwards: Artem Anisimov (Columbus Blue Jackets), Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings), Ilya Kovalchuk (SKA St Petersburg), Denis Kokarev (Dynamo Moscow), Nikolai Kulemin (Toronto Maple Leafs), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Valeri Nichushkin (Dallas Stars), Alexander Ovechkin (Washington Capitals), Alexander Popov (Avangard Omsk), Alexander Radulov (CSKA Moscow), Sergei Soin (Dynamo Moscow), Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis Blues), Alexei Tereshchenko (Ak Bars Kazan), Viktor Tikhonov (SKA St Petersburg)
(Additional reporting by Dmitriy Rogovitskiy; editing by Toby Davis and Ken Ferris)