It was the first game for both teams in Group B action on the men’s side of the Olympic tournament.
The Athletes jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead and looked poised to blow their opponents away, but Slovakia proved resilient and, in the end, skated to an impressive victory under new coach Craig Ramsay.
“The coach told us before the tournament that we could beat anyone,” enthused winning goalie Branislav Konrad. “We might struggle, but we will fight for results, and we did it! We played in the middle, we blcocked the shots. The guys must be hurt after all that. Thanks to them. We didn’t try to play with the puck, we just shot it up the ice. If we were tired, we weren’t afraid to shoot it for the icing. And then we scored some goals!”
The extra-man goal came on the second quick power play in the third for Slovakia because of OAR players shooting the puck out of play in their own end, plays that cost them the game as it turned out.
Although all teams advance to the next round of play, the loss could hurt the Olympic Athletes’ hopes of earning a bye directly to the quarter-finals.
“We didn’t skate well at first,” acknowledged Dominik Granak. “We were down after four minutes, but then I think I was really important that all the guys in our group stayed focused. Our coaches helped us a lot. It was our first game in a long time, maybe two weeks for some guys, so maybe that was the reason. Maybe we were a little bit nervous because we knew how many star players they have. But after the first goal we scored, we started to believe we might be able to play against them. After half of the game, we played much better. The Russians had more chances, they controlled the puck, and had more power plays, but our PK did a great job. Our goalie was amazing, and we blocked so many shots in front of him.”
“We played badly,” offered Ilya Kovalchuk, “but I’m sure we’ll get better. We need to make sure we learn the right lessons from this. In the other game, Slovenia beat the Americans, so we’ve been warned that this is a very even group. Anyone can beat anyone. We need to prepare carefully and do better on the power play. We didn’t ease off after the two early goals. We still created plenty of chances. Their goalie was great, and in the first period they only had four shots. We didn’t ease off, they were just better than us.”
The game could not have started out better for OAR or worse for Slovakia. The Slovaks had trouble merely getting a touch of the puck let alone a rush up ice with it, and to no one’s surprise this led to an early goal for OAR. Vladislav Gavrikov drifted a quick shot from the point that floated all the way in at 2:54.
Just 74 seconds later the Olympic Athletes made it 2-0 on a similar play. This time, though, Nikita Gusev’s routine shot was deftly deflected by Kirill Kaprizov in front, and the puck bounced past Branislav Konrad for a 2-0 lead.
The OAR players continued to dominate, skating freely and making clever passes emblematic of the confidence they exude when things are going well. A route seemed clearly in the process of happening.
But for whatever reason the hockey gods decided otherwise. Peter Olvecky skated down the right wing without looking dangerous at all. He took a simple snap shot on goal, but Vasili Koshechkin went down early and flubbed it, allowing it to go between his pads at 16:05.
Just like that the Slovaks had life, and 1:50 later they had tied the score. The play started with a blocked shot by Marek Hovorka inside his blue line. Martin Bakos scooped up the loose puck and also went down the right wing, but instead of shooting five hole he snapped a shot over Koshechkin’s glove as the goalie went down.
A period dominated by the Athletes form Russia was now 2-2.
The second continued the reversal of fortunes. Although the OAR started the period on a power play, the Slovaks slowly but steadily skated with more confidence, moved the puck more effectively, and created several fine chances. In truth, although there was no scoring in the middle 20, it was the Athletes form Russia who were lucky not to be trailing.
In the third, Slovakia was the more determined team, even after they gained the lead and incurred two late penalties. The penalty killing was superb, and the players’ willingness to block shots was brve in the extreme. In the end, it was clear they wanted to win more.
Both teams have a day off before returning to the ice. Slovakia will play the United States in the early game on Friday, after which the Olympic Athletes play Slovenia.