SOCHI, Russia — On his first shift of his first period of his first game of the Sochi Olympics, Alex Ovechkin skated to his favorite spot, near the left faceoff circle, and found himself in possession of the two things he craves on any ice rink, in any corner of the globe: the puck and an opening. Before the game was two minutes old, before anyone on the ice had broken a sweat, before the pro-Russian crowd at the Bolshoi Ice Dome could even plead/chant, “Shaybu!” (“Score!”), Ovechkin had done with that puck the one thing he does best.
He had waited years for Thursday to get here, Russia’s opening game of the 2014 Winter Games, and he needed just seconds to seize his moment. The game was a mere 77 seconds old when Ovechkin’s shot found the back of the net, top shelf, and the crowd sent up a roar that sounded like half-exhilaration, half-relief.
“I’m pretty sure everyone was little bit nervous,” Ovechkin said later. “Crazy crowd, unbelievable atmosphere out there. When you play at home, it always makes you a little bit tight.”
There were many takeaways to be extracted from Russia’s hard-fought 5-2 victory over Slovenia in its Olympics opener — and not all of them speak well of the Russians, who must face the United States on Saturday — but what stood out above all was the breathtaking skill and theatrics of their second line.
Center Evgeni Malkin, Ovechkin’s longtime Team Russia teammate and NHL rival, set up Ovechkin’s quick-fire goal, scored his own (on an Ovechkin pass) three minutes later and assisted on a third, by Ilya Kovalchuk, during a second-period power play. And the Russians would need them all, as Slovenia gamely kept the score close, despite a 35-14 disadvantage in shots.
Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)
Leading just 3-2 entering the third period, and with the crowd growing restless, Russia was bailed out by 18-year-old Valeri Nichushkin — its youngest player by 31 / 2 years — who scored the goal of the game nearly four minutes into the period. Floating in from the right side, Nichushkin, a first-round draft pick of the Dallas Stars last year, fought off a check from a Slovenian defender and pushed the puck past goalie Robert Kristan just before the goal came off its moorings.
“We just need to keep working same way,” Kovalchuk said. “We didn’t play [together] since July. So this was first game in a long time. I’m pretty sure in next game we’ll be much better.”
A raucous crowd of 11,653 waved Russian flags and chanted, “Russ-i-a! Russ-i-a!” at their heroes. Russia had never played an Olympic game on its home soil, and the domestic expectations have grown enormous as the team seeks to break the country’s 22-year gold medal drought and restore the credibility it lost with an ugly flameout in the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The Slovenians, whose roster includes only one NHL player, proved to be a perfect first opponent — not talented enough to seriously threaten the Russians, but scrappy and resourceful enough to make them work.
Russia’s veteran players surely remembered the 2011 World Championships, when they needed a pair of goals in the final three minutes to escape with a 6-4 win. The Russians’ poor showing in that tournament — they finished fourth — eventually led to the firing of Vyacheslav Bykov as coach of the national team, and the subsequent hiring of current Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov.
On Thursday, the Ovechkin-Malkin-Alexander Semin line skated second for the Russians, after the one centered by captain Pavel Datsyuk, and no sooner had Ovechkin hit the ice than he took a pass from Malkin inside Slovenia’s blue line, carried it into the faceoff circle and fired a rocket over the left shoulder of Kristan. Ovechkin went sliding into the boards behind the goal, raising his arms in triumph. The goal was Ovechkin’s ninth in 13 career Olympic games.
Less than three minutes later, Malkin took a pass from Ovechkin, broke in alone against Kristan, deked right and scored from the left.
The fast start portended an easy afternoon for the Russians, who could have used one, given the crushing scrutiny and pressure they are under this month. Instead, they watched the Slovenians pull to within 2-1, then 3-2, before the youngster Nichushkin — whom many in the Russian media believed would be a healthy scratch Thursday — came through.
“Everybody saw how after two goals we sort of calmed down and lowered our tempo,” defenseman Anton Belov said. “A serious team should not do such things.”
Said Datsyuk: “We need to draw lessons and fix mistakes: Shoot more, play more confidently [and] simpler.”
Given the breakneck pace of the Olympic tournament — where the top teams will play six games, the last of them of the do-or-die variety — the Russians’ sense of urgency is understandable. They survived Thursday, which is all they needed to do, but their road gets no easier from here.