SOCHI, Russia – The Russian men’s hockey team could have sleepwalked through its game with Slovakia at the Bolshoy Ice Dome on Sunday evening and not done irreparable harm to its chances in the Winter Olympics tournament. The preliminary round is essentially only for seeding purposes of the 12 teams, and there is a long tradition of top contenders, even eventual gold medal winners, staggering through the prelims in a wholly unimpressive manner.
So that’s what Russia did. Still reeling from its emotionally draining shootout loss to the United States the night before and facing a winless Slovakia team that was starting its third-string goalie, the Russians more or less took the first two periods off before snapping to attention in the third — by which point it was nearly too late. Russia was pushed to another overtime, and then to another shootout, before prevailing by what was officially a 1-0 score.
And while the performance didn’t sink Russia by any means, there was collateral damage — perhaps most notably the fact that Slovakia, in holding the Russians’ vaunted offensive attack scoreless for 65 minutes with an unusually focused defensive game plan, may have provided the template for how to beat them to more talented teams.
“We knew they’d play defensively . . . and all our expectations came true,” said Russian star Alex Ovechkin. “They stood on the blue line in fours, and we had to overcome this defense.”
There were tired legs on the ice, hoarse voices in the stands and foul moods all over Russia on Sunday, owing to the fateful events of the evening before. The epic loss to the Americans was barely 21 hours old when the Russians had to take the ice again, and they played the first period as if suffering from a hangover.
“The previous match obviously had some influence on the players,” said Russian Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov. “It added some stress and new emotions.” Added Ovechkin: “We had to get all the emotions out of us and find strength.”
Slovakia took eight of the game’s first 11 shots, and Russian goalie Semyon Varlamov had to make a spectacular pad save to stop one of them — part of a 27-save effort from Varlamov that helped Russia avoid what would have been an ignominious defeat.
At the other end of the ice, Jan Laco, a backup goalie for his Kontinental Hockey League team and Slovakia’s third-stringer, was confounding the Russians with an array of saves on the rare occasions when they generated solid chances.
Only in the third period, helped by a quartet of Slovakia penalties and a suddenly palpable sense of urgency, did the Russians come to life. They outshot Slovakia, 15-2, their best chance coming in the final minute when Ovechkin had an open net with Laco out of position. But Slovak defenseman Andrej Meszaros, a Philadelphia Flyers veteran, dived across the net and blocked the shot with his arm. Another close call for the Russians came when Alexander Radulov’s deflection in front hit both the crossbar and the post but never went over the goal line.
“It was a hot goalie,” said Russia’s Ilya Kovalchuk, “and luck was on their side.”
After a scoreless five-minute, four-on-four overtime, the teams needed only two of the scheduled three-round shootout to decide the outcome. The Slovaks missed twice, and the Russians scored twice, with Radulov and Kovalchuk doing the honors.
In closing out the preliminary round with one regulation win, one shootout loss and one shootout win, the Russians have made things difficult for themselves as the tournament shifts to a win-or-go-home format. Rather than gaining a bye into the quarterfinals, they will be the fifth seed and must play a “qualification” game against 12th-seeded Norway on Tuesday. (On the other hand, as one Russian journalist quipped, they have given the Sochi Games organizers an extra, guaranteed big crowd.)
If Russia survives Norway, its quarterfinals opponent on Wednesday would be Finland. Win that, and their semifinal opponent would most likely be Sweden. Any potential rematch with the U.S., or a showdown with Canada, would not happen until the gold medal game.
The Russians’ path thus far, in fact, resembles nothing so much as the one taken by Canada four years ago in Vancouver, when the hometown favorites earned the sixth seed following an uninspired showing in the prelims, but steamrolled its way to the gold medal with four straight wins (including a 7-3 blowout of Russia in the quarters).
For the Russians to author a similar storyline here, they will have to find a way to unleash an offense that, since Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin each scored goals on their line’s first two shifts of the Olympics, has totaled just five goals in roughly 186 minutes of play. The Russian media is already full of speculation about changes to the lineup and special teams, perhaps a tweak on the power play to get Ovechkin more and better chances.
If this Russian team is going to be the one to end the country’s gold medal drought, restore the glory of the Soviet Red Machine days and avenge 2010’s humiliation, it is going to have to take a long, difficult route to do it.