Russia opens with win
Hosts happy despite Slovenia surprise
If Russia had written the script for the start of its home Olympic hockey campaign, it could hardly have come up with a more perfect opening scene.
There were just 67 seconds played when Alexander Ovechkin - the poster boy of Russian hockey and potentially the face of the Games - unleashed a devastating wrist shot from the left-hand face-off spot. It ripped across the face of Robert Kristan's goal and lasered into the angle of post and bar.
It was a goal which should have set the tone for what was to come: slick Russian passing saw Yevgeni Malkin lead a two-on-one break, and his intelligent drop to the left took Mitja Robar out of the game to set up Ovi's shooting chance.
But Slovenia, and Ziga Jeglic in particular, proved unhappy with the role of punchbag and the underdog bit back hard in the second period. Jeglic, a forward with the DEL's ERC Ingolstadt, may have nothing like the reputation of Ovechkin but his two goals - from just four Slovenian second-period shots - injected an unexpected note of dramatic tension before Russia eased to a 5-2 victory in its Sochi curtain raiser.
Goalscorer Ovechkin admitted that racing into an early lead had cost team Russia some critical focus as the game wore on. "We got the lead and then we stopped playing how we're supposed to play," he said. "We tried to make casual moves, we tried to pass to our friends when we had a chance to shoot the puck.
"When you get to 2-0 so quickly you feel like it's going to be easy. That's why we stopped playing."Continue reading
Anze Kopitar, Slovenia's LA Kings star, took a slightly different view. "The key was that we started to skate and believe we could play, and that we deserved to be here," he said. "We won the second period which is a big positive. We have to proud of our effort and proud of our team. We're not playing the flashiest hockey, but it got us here."
Russia rode out the scare with goals from Valeri Nichushkin and Anton Belov early in the third and ultimately finished convincing winners, but the other top contenders will look with interest at the frailties exhibited in front of Semyon Varlamov's net. Russian optimists, meanwhile, might recall how their team's all-conquering 2012 World Championship campaign began with a similar scoreline against an obdurate but limited Latvian team.
Initially it seemed to be a procession: the pace and puck-handling of Russia's fearsome forward line created a string of breakaways and overlaps which kept the outsider firmly in its place. Nikolai Kulyomin worked space for a shot which Kristan fumbled perilously close to Vladimir Tarasenko before another 'eye-of-the-needle' feed set Yevgeni Malkin over the blue line with only Robert Kristan to beat; a clinical flick of the wrist made it 2-0.
Kristan at least put that unsteady start behind him, producing a smart stick save from Ovechkin on Russia's first powerplay, but there was little respite for the Olympic debutants. Wave after wave of red-shirted marauders threatened to swamp the net. Teenage talent Nichushkin, making his senior international debut at the start of the biggest competition in the game, showed glimpses of his flair, picking the locks on Slovenia's blue line to release Alexander Popov, only for Kristan's pads to save his team.
Kristan was full of praise for the way his team battled back in adversity. "It's tough when you're down 2-0 so quickly but we were strong. We stepped up in the second period and showed we could play against Russia," he said. "We were only down 3-2 and we had a pretty good chance to cause an upset, but unfortunately we couldn't quite do it."
The first-period shot count overwhelmingly favoured Russia at 18-4, and it perhaps should have been still more one-sided had Russia not indulged in an series of attempts to score highlight reel goals rather than despatch the opposition while it was at its most vulnerable.
Not even a warning raid from Anze Kopitar - by far the most famed Slovenian hockey export - was sufficient to convince the Russians of the merits of scoring ugly, and that enabled Slovenia to hit back impressively in the second stanza.
Less than two minutes after intermission Jeglic reduced the arrears. Robar found him in clean ice and his shot on Varlamov had the same zinging precision as Ovechkin's opener, albeit from a kinder angle.
Far from a wake-up call, the goal seemed to stun Russia rather than revitalise. Renewed belief among the men in white and green inspired them to block up those avenues that the Red Machine had earlier cruised at will. Kristan still faced pressure, but the pucks he fielded lacked the venom of those first-period opportunities until the 38th minute when Ilya Kovalchuk delivered on the power play. The SKA St. Petersburg star produced a precise finish through a crowded slot after strong work from Malkin behind the net - but Jeglic wasn't finished yet.
Barely a minute after Kovalchuk's goal, the Slovenian struck again, completing the kind of move Russia had been producing at will in the first period. Robert Sabolic played a beautiful pass to set Zeglic beyond Anton Belov and the forward had the finish to beat Varlamov.
The goalie conceded twice from just four shots in the second period, and reflected that sometimes it's easier to play in games where there is more to do on defence. Meanwhile, defenceman Belov admitted that complacency almost cost Russia an embarrassing start to the tournament.
"I think everyone could see that we cooled off a bit after we scored the two goals," he said. "Really, a serious team can't afford to do that so it's good that we still managed to win the game. Maybe we eased off too much, and we were punished by giving away two soft goals."
The outcome was finally settled early in the third. Nichushkin made it a debut to remember, profiting from poor positioning in Slovenia's defence to home in on Kristan's goal and force the puck home. Then Belov powered home a shot from the point after Russia combined to retrieve the puck swiftly following a miss by Radulov.
Nichushkin was planning to search the arena for the puck that he slotted home, despite giving the usual assurance that the team's result is more important than individual glory. "The refs didn't give the puck to me," he said. "I hope somebody has kept it so I can get it later."