MOSCOW -- When the Soviet hockey team takes the ice in Calgary, it will be battling for something more than Olympic gold.
After being upset in the World Cup tournament last spring and finishing behind Canada here in December, the squad that has dominated world hockey for nearly two decades will be fighting for its reputation.
Since its second-place finish to Canada, the Soviet team has been quietly maneuvering for a comeback. After a retreat to its suburban Moscow training camp, it slipped over to Norway in late January and picked up two victories.
But is the Soviet hockey team's luster fading? Even the most die-hard of Soviet hockey fans wonder. Long since retired are the stalwart players who guided the team through its heyday -- including victories in 18 of the past 23 World Championships and six of the last eight Olympics.
"We have lost a lot of the stars," said Oleg Alekseyev, veteran hockey writer for the Soviet newspaper Sovietskii Sport, in an interview. "And it's obvious."
In the age of glasnost, or openness, even Coach Victor Tikhonov has spoken publicly of his lineup in terms of its "shortcomings."
Experts say the Soviets still are favored at the Calgary Games, however. With an experienced group of young players and the goal of protecting its image, this team probably is as prepared for victory as any of its competitors.
But the battle it is fighting is uphill.
The most obvious weakness of the squad, by Tikhonov's admission, is in goal. Even though it has been four years since longtime all-star goalie Vladislav Tretyak retired, a suitable replacement has yet to be found.
"Our keepers have played too inconsistently," Tikhonov said in an interview released by Tass, the Soviet news agency, "alternating spectacular saves with slipshod minding."
In Calgary, Yevgeniy Belosheikin, a Tretyak prote'ge', is likely to be the starting goalie. The 21-year-old is rated long on stamina but short on big league experience, and some Soviet hockey specialists think he might not have the wherewithal to see the team through the Olympics.
Aside from goalie, the Soviet lineup is considered strong at the center but lacking in depth. Right wing Sergei Makarov, center Igor Larionov and left wing Vladimir Kritov have been playing together for nearly eight years -- long enough to develop a chemistry on the ice. But in major tournaments, they are on the ice most of the time, indicating a lack of bench strength.
Another problem is that the powerful attack, long regarded as the Soviet team's strength, might be outdated. Over the years, opposing teams have learned to defend against it effectively, Alekseyev said.
"In part it is a sign that hockey has really come of age," he added. "Everybody watches everybody else's plays on videotape. It's very hard to do something new, surprising, or unexpected."
Some critics have blamed the Soviets' outmoded training habits. For years, the Soviet players have followed a rigid camp schedule, which isolates them from their families for weeks on end.
Last April, the Swedish national players arrived in Vienna with their families for the World Championships and snatched the title away from the Soviet Union.
Flagging morale, too, has taken its toll on the Soviet players, particularly after the grueling pre-Olympics training and competition.
"Sometimes the team cannot or does not want to compete or both," Larionov said in an interview published in an official Soviet magazine this winter. "After 11 months of training without a break, after many thousands of kilometers on the road, we had only a month's rest. The team did not even begin to miss hockey."
While the Soviet squad has been preoccupied with finding replacements for its retired star players, the teams that will provide the major Olympic competition have been gradually improving. So talent gaps among the world's five top-ranked teams -- Canada, Sweden, the United States, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union -- are starting to narrow, according to hockey specialists here.
Moscow regards Canada as its main competitor in the Calgary Games, a role relished by the Canadians, who have not won an Olympic gold in 36 years. Canada took first place in the Izvestia Tournament, leaving the Soviet team in second place. And in the Canada Cup series in September, the Soviets lost to the Canadian team, three games to two.
Besides the shortcomings in the team, the superstitious would indicate another worry about the Soviet chances in Calgary. The only two of the last eight Olympics the Soviet team have not won were the two played on North American ice: the 1960 Games at Squaw Valley and the 1980 Games at Lake Placid.
But international experts do not discount the Soviets by any means. The team's nucleus features a handful of players who could hardly be better trained. Five are key players who have played together since the beginning of the decade.
Despite shortcomings, the Soviet squad embodies the best of its main opponents, according to Alekseyev.
"The Americans are known for their hard physical training, the Swedes for their heavy technical grounding, the Czechs for their tactical training, and the Canadians for their fervent emotional commitment to the game," he said. "The Soviet team combines some of all these elements."
Besides the hope of winning an Olympic medal and of regaining their honor, the Soviet players have another goal in Calgary: securing a place in the National Hockey League.
Last year, the Soviet Union said it will no longer oppose its players being drafted into the NHL, and in Calgary the contest is wide open for which Soviet players will make an impression.
SPORT ------------- U.S. ----------U.S.S.R
Biathlon ............ 0 ................ 8
Bobsled ............. 0 ................ 0
Ice Hockey .......... 2 ................ 6
Luge ................ 0 ................ 1
Figure Skating ...... 7 ................ 8
Speed Skating ...... 10 ............... 21
Alpine Skiing ....... 4 ................ 0
Nordic Skiing ....... 0 ............... 23
TOTALS ............. 23 ............... 67