Try, try as they might, the Russians just couldn't get a shot past Jan Laco in regulation. Nor could they in overtime. But given the opportunity for their second shootout in as many contests, Russia found a way to get over the hump.
Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk got consecutive shots past Laco in the shootout and Semyon Varlamov kept his sheet clean, as Russia scored a 1-0 victory over Slovakia on Sunday.
The victory, while far more nerve-wracking than anyone in Sochi expected, helps advance Russia to the elimination round of these Winter Games. Pierre LeBrun of ESPN highlighted the jubilation apparent, as the home crowd cheered in a combination of joy and relief:
Alex Ovechkin discussed the importance of the Russian crowd on Thursday, courtesy of Dave Sheinin of The Washington Post, “Crazy crowd, unbelievable atmosphere out there. When you play at home, it always makes you a little bit tight.”
With the United States scoring a 5-1 victory over Slovenia in its Group A finale, Russia clinches its second-place spot in the overall standings. Still, extending the game to a shootout all but eliminates any chance Russia has of earning the No. 4 seed and a bye in the elimination round.
Canada and Finland will have to play their Group B-deciding game before it is official, but barring an all-time blowout the Russians are forced into action Tuesday. Realistically, it would have taken a victory in regulation along with a loss for Canada or Finland in regulation for Russia to earn the fourth seed because both countries had a goal-differential advantage.
Prior to the puck drop, that seemed like a pretty good bet.
Russia came into its final game of group play an overwhelming favorite. The Slovaks were out-scored 10-2 in their first two contests, and essentially had little more than pride to play for on Sunday. Russia, meanwhile, had numerous seeding implications ongoing—depending on both its result and the final scores of other contests being played.
For the first two-plus periods, though, Russia played with the passion of a team that felt it would win regardless of effort level. The intensity paled in comparison to that of the Russians' rivalry matchup against the United States, with the players sloppily missing out on scoring opportunities and even the fans in Sochi staying relatively quiet.
The result was a scoreless first 40 minutes that saw Slovakia play with perhaps its highest aggression level of the entire Games. The Slovaks out-shot the Russians 22-16 in the first two periods, just missing out on numerous opportunities to pull ahead. Semyon Varlamov kept the home country even, converting saves and providing a critical stability.
In the third period, though, Russia began ratcheting up the pressure. The crowd grew louder, the plays were more crisp and the Russians seemed to figure out they wouldn't merely be able to coast their way to victory. Given a power play to start the third period, Russia kept the puck inside the Slovak zone and peppered Jan Laco with a series of difficult-to-save shots.
Laco was just impenetrable. The KHL standout killed penalties of the period despite multiple goal-scoring opportunities for Russia. One save saw Laco sprawled out with just his left leg covering a loose puck near the net, hanging on desperately to get the whistle.
And it also helps to get a few good breaks along the way. Russia seemingly took a lead with just under 10 minutes left on a power play, when Ovechkin found Yevgeni Medvedev for an open shot attempt near the blue line. The puck seemingly went into the back of the net and then off the post, and multiple Russian players began celebrating before an official waved it off.
Upon further review from officials, the puck went off the post twice and barely rattled out. The scene harkened back to Russia's loss to the United States, in which a potentially game-winning goal was disallowed because Jonathan Quick dislodged the net before the score went through. As noted by NBC Olympics' Dan Marrazza, there was no controversy this time around:
Throughout the period, it felt like Russia was knocking on the door before the inevitable score. But Laco, a complete unknown to most American and NHL-centric audiences, thrived in the head of the Olympic spotlight. Russia took 15 shots in the third period compared to just two for the Slovaks. It just wasn't good enough.
In the five-minute overtime period, Laco again held the Russians scoreless—and also needed good luck to make it happen. Given a wide-open net for the first time all game, Ovechkin fired off a quick shot to the right side, seemingly on its way to giving Russia an overtime win.
Unfortunately for Ovechkin, a desperate dive from Andrej Meszaros stopped the shot. That shot proved the best opportunity for Russia in overtime, with the teams trading off relatively unsuccessful attacks. Laco finished the game with 36 saves. Varlamov, overshadowed by his counterpart for much of the contest, was perfect on 27 shots before the shootout and stopped the two most important of his tournament.
It's unclear what this victory will mean for the Russians. On one side, it has to feel like a triumph to pull off a win during their worst-played game thus far. On the other, losing the chance at a bye is a crushing blow—one that may cause fatigue later in the tournament.
Slovakia's chance at a medal may be over, but if Russia winds up being ousted earlier than expected, Laco and Co. can take solace in the fact they played an integral role in starting the process.
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