For the second night in a row, it was the shootout for the Russians. This time, they won, but not before having played 65 minutes of scoreless hockey first.
Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov scored for the Russians and Semyon Varlamov denied both of Slovakia's shootout attempts to give Russia the win.
The lost point, however, will likely deny the hosts a quarter-final bye, depending on the result of the Canada-Finland game later tonight. Slovakia, on its part, managed to avoid the last place in the overall standings and to significantly lift its own spirits after frustrating the high-powered Russian offence for 65 minutes.
This was the first-ever 0-0 game to be decided in the shootout in the Olympic history. Slovakia has proven itself a thorn in Russia's side for the third Olympics in a row, having previously defeated them in Turin and in Vancouver.
"It was a pity we didn't win in regulation," said Russia's Alexander Ovechkin. "We had opportunities. (But) it doesn't matter how many games we have to play in the Olympics."
Anticlimactic would probably be the best word to describe the Sunday afternoon affair. The excitement in the stands and on the ice couldn’t quite match the previous night’s game between Russia and the United States. For the host country, a win would likely mean a spot in the quarter-finals, but the Russians didn’t appear willing to go to war for three points. Even the ever-boisterous fans at the Bolshoy Ice Dome seemed much less frenzied this time around.
As for Slovakia, it had known nothing but humiliation at this tournament, with an embarrassing 7-1 loss to the United States followed by a shocking 3-1 defeat at the hands of Slovenia. With the hope of salvaging some national pride and improving its playoff seeding on the line, the Slovaks decided to try out their third goalie, Jan Laco, after going with their NHL tandem in the first two games. Russia returned Semyon Varlamov to the net, giving Sergei Bobrovski some much-deserved rest after the heart-stopping game against the USA.
"The most important thing for me, and for the whole team, was to win," said Varlamov after the game. "I think, the team played pretty well. We had a huge amount of great chances, but just couldn't capitalize on them."
Varlamov was the first of the two goalies to be forced to make a big save, when Michel Miklik, working on an early Slovakia power play, was trying to tip the puck into the net from the crease, only to be denied by a lightning-fast kick save.
There wasn’t too much of that in the first period, however. Richard Panik’s big hit on Yevgeni Malkin and Malkin’s slap shot from the high slot, which Laco just managed to deflect with his glove, provided the only other highlights of the sluggish first 20 minutes of action.
The second period featured only marginally more excitement than the first and saw the Slovak goaltender getting penalized for hip-checking an opponent, a pair of gorgeous saves by Varlamov on a Milan Bartovic breakaway and, most significantly, a big injury scare for Russia.
In the 11th minute of the period, Ilya Kovalchuk, while chasing the puck in the defensive zone, got tangled up with Richard Panik and went down awkwardly, appearing to tweaked a knee or an ankle. Kovalchuk managed to get off the ice himself but he was in obvious pain and, after taking a precarious skate near the bench, he went off to the dressing room.
Alexander Popov took Kovalchuk’s place on Pavel Datsyuk’s line for the rest of the period, but Russia’s fears were assuaged when the team’s long-time leader was back on the ice to take his shift on a power play. Also back for Russia was Valeri Nichushkin who got hit with a puck in the second period and had to miss a few shifts.
After the game, Kovalchuk refused to discuss his health, only saying that "this is a question that should be asked later."
But even with "Kovy" back in the lineup, Russia’s scoring woes persisted, as once again the goalposts were not cooperating with the home team. On a third power play Yevgeni Medvedev’s shot from the blue line was deflected by Alexander Syomin and looked like it may have gone in under the crossbar. Indeed, Syomin began to celebrate, but the referee immediately waived the goal off. The subsequent replay proved the official right: the puck struck the crossbar, then the goalpost and landed in front of the line.
Before the refs had a chance to look at the replay, however, the question was almost rendered moot after Alexei Tereshenko’s breakaway chance, but Laco was once again equal to the task. There was more bad luck in store for Russia, as Malkin rang a shot off the post a few minutes later. The finishing touch, which the U.S. and Slovenia had exhibited against this particular opponent, simply wasn’t there for Russia.
It continued into the overtime, when Alexander Ovechkin made a berserker rush into the Slovakia zone, only to be denied first by Laco and then by Andrej Meszaros, who sprawled out in front of Ovechkin’s second attempt and got his glove on the puck. Seconds later, Malkin and Fyodor Tyutin were denied by Laco.
"Like in any walk of life you need to stay calm, keep a cool head," said the ever-philosophical Datsyuk. "Yesterday was very emotional and again today when we had chances to score people made very poor decisions."
In the game-winning shot competition, Slovakia started off with Michal Handzus whose head fake never fooled Varlamov. Alexander Radulov then shot for Russia, to the thunderous applause from the fans. His backhand shot went over Laco’s glove for a goal. Tomas Tatar was next and his multiple dekes couldn’t beat Varlamov’s quick pad work. Ilya Kovalchuk then assured Russia’s win with a nifty move to the backhand that froze Laco in his tracks.
"We talked about playing a full 60 minutes and putting up strong defence," said Meszaros. "We should have done that two games ago but we didn't. Our goalie was unbelievable and so was theirs. I wish we could have played that way against USA and Slovenia."