HELSINKI – He’s Russia’s dream come true, and he’s every opposing goalie’s nightmare. He’s Ilya Kovalchuk, and his hat trick sparked a 4-1 victory over Germany on Sunday evening.
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It doesn’t look like turning 30 last month has fazed the two-time World Champion gold medalist at all. Including his single against Latvia, Kovalchuk has already totaled more goals (four) than he had in six out of his eight previous Worlds appearances. He took over the top spot among post-Soviet-era Russian goal-scorers at this tournament, with 27 to Alexander Ovechkin's 26.
Denis Kokarev added an empty-netter with 21 seconds remaining.
John Tripp scored for the hard-working Germans, who have one point in two games after opening with an overtime loss to Finland.
"It was a good game, and it was a close game like the game against Finland, but we didn't get points," said Germany's Yannic Seidenberg.
"Games against Germany are never easy," said Kovalchuk. "They battle hard and make us work for the points. In 2010, we beat them 2-1 in the semifinal, and last year 2-0."
Semyon Varlamov got his first tournament start in goal for the defending World Champions. Dennis Endras, who was selected as the 2010 tournament MVP, got the call for Germany, which outshot Russia 27-26.
"I made a couple of saves early in the game, and that gave me some confidence," said Varlamov. "But hockey is a team sport, and you can't win games on your own."
Germany now has just one World Championship victory and 34 losses against Russia. The historic win came on April 29, 2011 in Bratislava, Slovakia, with Endras recording a 2-0 shutout.
Still, ever since Germany hosted the tournament in 2010, games between these two nations have usually been closer than expected, given Russia’s current IIHF World Ranking (#1) and Germany’s (#10). In fact, three out of Russia’s last four victories over Germany have been by two goals or less.
The Germans clearly didn’t want to just roll over and surrender for their more highly skilled foes.
Physical intensity abounded in the scoreless first period, with lots of grinding and stickwork along the boards. Alexander Perezhoghin was shaken up on a big hit in the Russian end by Germany’s Marcus Kink. Russian defenceman Anton Belov high-sticked a forechecking Felix Schütz behind Varlamov’s net, giving the Germans their second power play of the game.
Kovalchuk drew first blood for Russia at 3:20 of the second period. Yevgeni Medvedev faked a slapper from the right point and then sent the puck to Kovalchuk by the right post, where he hesitated before beating Endras with a perfect, high short-side shot.
Just past the midway point of the second period, the Russians stormed the German net again. Although Alexander Radulov couldn’t shovel the puck past Endras’s left pad, he retrieved it behind the net and swiftly centered it to Kovalchuk, who scored high glove side before the German netminder had a chance to react.
The Germans capitalized on the man advantage at 5:03 of the third period to draw within one. After Michael Wolf hammered a drive from the center point off Varlamov’s right post, Tripp shoveled in the rebound lying behind the goalie.
Germany thought it had tied the game with 5:33 left on the clock, but the officials ruled that Andre Rankel had deliberately directed the puck in with his skate and waved it off. German supporters whistled derisively, but that wasn't changing anything.
"That goal would have changed the momentum of the game," said Seidenberg. "Unfortunately for us, the refs saw it in another way."
Kovalchuk completed his hat trick at 18:20, popping home a rebound after a dazzling bit of stickhandling by Radulov around German captain Christian Ehrhoff.