Alyona Khomich’s powerful shot in the second period gave Russia a game-winner over Sweden and let the home team avoid playing Finland in the quarter-final.
As widely expected, this was the decisive game for both teams, aimed to determine who gets to avoid the bronze-medal favourite Finland, ranked No. 3 by IIHF, in the quarter-finals. Though it should be said that Switzerland, who took the Finns into overtime in the Group A matchup the day before, no longer looked like such a titillating prize for the winner.
This prize, as it is, will go to Russia, who battled Sweden to a 3-1 win in front of 5,092 elated home fans. Anna Shukina, Alyona Khomich and Yekaterina Smolentseva scored for Russia, while Pernilla Winberg got Sweden's only tally. As it is usually the case with Russia at these Olympics, the game wasn't decided until very late in the procedings.
"We had already achieved our minimal goal by getting out of the group, so it was easy to play tonight," said forward Anna Sosina. "But it would've been easier still if we had realized our chances."
The Russians have gotten into a habit of tingling their fans’ nerves, as they had been either tied or behind in the third periods of their first two games, versus underdogs Germany and Japan. Goaltending was also an issue, albeit an expected one, after the team’s perennial starter Nadezhda Alexandrova took a break from hockey due to pregnancy. Both Yulia Leskina and Anna Prugova looked shaky at times, but the more experienced Prugova predictably got the start in goal in this game.
The Swedes, who still had not allowed a single goal in this tournament, started Valentina Wallner, who had posted a 19-save shutout in the Damkronorna’s opening game against Japan.
Wallner got to work early and often, as Russia began the game with a full-out assault on the opposing goal, aided by an early boarding penalty by Sweden’s captain Jenni Asserholt. Even though Wallner was unfazed on the penalty kill and annulled several great chances, the Russians kept on pressing, as the rink appeared tilted to the Swedish side for most of the first period. It wasn’t until way past the halfway point in the first period when the Swedes got their first shot on goal, following 11 by the Russians.
"Russia deserved the win if you look at the whole game," said Sweden's assistant coach Leif Boork. "The game was very much decided after the first period when they had the much higher tempo than we had."
The relentless attacks by the home team eventually bore fruit in the eighth minute of the game, as Russia’s youngest player, 16-year-old sensation Anna Shokhina, found the oldest, 41-year-old Yekaterina Pashkevich, with a long pass to the left wing. Pashkevich slipped the puck to the low slot with a deft backhand and defenceman Anna Shukina tipped it into the upper corner of the net.
Had Russia capitalized on its even more glorious chances, it could have put the game out of reach before the first 20 minutes were in the books. But Wallner and the Swedes managed to hold it close. Russia did not convert on a 38-second 5-on-3, as Iya Gavrilova’s point shot found Wallner’s outstretched pad and was deflected wide.
"I knew before the game I'd have to play well. Russia has a very good team. I tried my best but unfortunately we couldn't score enough," said Wallner. "Now we just try to forget about [this game] because we've got a tough match coming up."
With a 15-2 disadvantage in shots at the first intermission, Sweden’s game had nowhere to go but up, and the second period was less lopsided early on. Still, Russia, who enjoyed possession advantage and more quality chances, doubled up the score at the 9:20 mark. Khomich’s blast from the blue line eluded Wallner, who was thoroughly screened by three players.
Spurred ahead by the boisterous sellout crowd, with the stands covered wall-to-wall with Russian flags, the home team continued surging. Shokhina, Sosina and Galina Skiba all had great scoring chances (in Sosina’s case, two on the same shift), but Wallner refused to be victimized any further.
"The stands were urging us on," said Shukina. "I have to give huge thanks to our fans. For the third game in a row, they are inspiring us with their screams."
The Swedes, on their part, got a timely doze of luck with about a minute left in the second. Skiba attempted to dump the puck behind her own net but it took a funny bounce off the boards towards Prugova’s crease. The surprised goalie tipped the puck right onto Pernilla Winberg’s stick and the Swedish forward didn’t miss from up close.
Energized by the goal, Sweden had an inspired opening to the third period, with a few good offensive-zone shifts of their own. Up until yet another penalty, their sixth of the night, swung the game back Russia’s way. If untimely penalties were the bane of the Swedes, the lack of the finishing touch kept Russia from getting more breathing room. Yet another great power play chance went to waste after Gavrilova, with the goalie beaten, banged the puck off the post.
"We did what the coaches asked us to," said Pashkevich. "But there are still certain issues, particularly with the finishing touch. But overall I am happy with the team."
The Russians’ scoring issues forced them to withstand the assault by the desperate Swedes, particularly on a late power play after Shokhina went off for tripping. To the home crowd’s exasperated relief, Prugova was equal to the task.
"The girls did very well and helped me out," said Prugova. "Yes, it gets a bit hard sometime with the scoring, but we all support each other and it will get better with every game."
With that scare behind them, the Russians finally put their opponent away with a late goal by captain Yekaterina Smolentseva, who was left wide open in the slot and unleashed a big shot past Wallner.
"Avoiding the Finns? That wasn't our goal," exclaimed defenceman Alexandra Kapustina. "It was their luck that they avoided us. They really didn't want to play us in the quarter-final."
"The Swiss team is a team that we know," said Russia's head coach Mikhail Chekanov. "We know their goalie is good but we know that their defence can be broken. We will get ready for this."
The women’s quarter-finals get underway on 15th February, with Finland facing Sweden at noon (the winner will play Team USA in the semi-finals) and Switzerland taking on Russia at 16:30 at the Shayba Arena - the winner of the late game will face Canada in the semi-finals.