QUEBEC CITY – In the first shootout of the 2008 Worlds, Sergei Mozyakin and Alexei Morozov scored as Russia eked out a 4-3 win over a tenacious Belarus squad.
With the win, Russia moved into first place in Group E with seven points. Belarus, with one point, still has a slim chance to make the quarter-finals by winning two straight games in regulation, if either Sweden or Switzerland fails to gain any points from its two remaining games.
Belarus goalie Vitali Koval was heroic, facing 55 shots in a losing cause. Even though he wasn’t chosen as a Player of the Game, the crowd chanted his name at the end.
“He’s been playing great, and giving us a chance every game,” said Belarus captain Ruslan Salei. “That’s what you want from a goalie.”
“Maybe you’ll see something even better from me in the games to come,” said Koval when asked if this was his best game ever. “I’ll do my best.”
Maxim Afinogenov, with a pair, and Alexander Ovechkin scored in regulation for Russia. Andrei Mikhalev, Dmitri Dudik and Alexei Ugarov had the goals for Belarus.
Russia’s top goalie and defenceman, Evgeni Nabokov and Andrei Markov, dressed for the first time in this tournament. Nabokov remained on the bench as Mikhail Biryukov’s backup. Markov’s only contribution on the scoresheet was a pair of minor penalties.
“We’ll have to play better and score more goals,” said Markov.
The Russians came out sleepwalking, especially on the defensive side, and Belarus came ready to battle.
At 7:27, Belarus jumped into a 1-0 lead when Andrei Mikhalev took a pass from Mikhail Grabovsky, dashed into the left faceoff circle and beat Biryukov on the short side.
At 11:53, Dmitri Dudik took advantage of a brutal Sergei Fedorov turnover in the corner, scooping up the puck and moving in front of the net to lift the puck over Biryukov’s glove and make it 2-0.
Sergei Zadelenov of Belarus took a double-minor for high-sticking Alexei Morozov, and the Russians went to work, dancing around the Belarusian zone with tons of puck possession. But the best chance in that four-minute span went to Andrei Kostitsyn, who sped in on Biryukov with a shorthanded break but couldn’t slide his backhander through the five-hole.
Adding insult to injury, the Belarusians shot the puck in the net at the end of a 2-on-1 just after the first-period buzzer had sounded, inciting a scrum in the corner. It didn’t matter. They’d been outshot 18-5, but had scored on 40 percent of their shots.
At the start of the second, Russia continued flubbing its chances, whether it was Ilya Kovalchuk firing wide on a one-timer or Alexander Ovechkin having the puck drift off his stick when he burst in alone on Koval.
But at 23:54, Maxim Afinogenov managed to jam the rebound from Alexei Morozov’s point shot through Koval’s wickets, and it was 2-1.
However, the Belarus goalie continued to shine. Koval stymied Kovalchuk, who went to the bench and threw his stick in disgust, and he slid across to get his blocker on a rocket by Ovechkin that had the crowd oohing and ahhing.
“He played a great game today, there’s no question about that,” Markov said of Koval.
Ovechkin tried to spark his team in the final minute of the second. But although he laid a big hit on Ruslan Salei behind the Belarus net and nearly tipped a puck through Koval’s legs, Belarus hung on to its one-goal lead.
Ovechkin finally tied it up at 8:21 of the third when his wrister from the faceoff circle whizzed over the goalie’s right shoulder.
Although the Belarusians continued with their steadfast defensive effort, they couldn’t prevent the go-ahead goal. Afinogenov swooped past the net and slid an Ovechkin rebound off the backboard just past the goal line with 6:09 left to play.
That looked like it would be the winner. But Mikhail Grabovsky found Alexei Ugarov driving to the net on the rush, and Ugarov banged it in the open side to tie it up at 3-3 again at 56:12.
Koval made a pair of fine back-to-back saves on Semin and Vitali Proshkin to preserve the deadlock, and Biryukov responded with a stunner of his own on Aleksandr Kulakov in the last 10 seconds. It was off to overtime.
The Russians had the better chances in OT. Ilya Kovalchuk was left all alone in front of Koval early in the five-minute, 4-on-4 extra session, but could only tap the puck into the goalie’s pads.
Maxim Sushinsky came close to ending it when he waltzed into the slot, zipping a shot at Koval and drawing a slashing penalty on Andrei Kostitsyn with 1:09 left. But the man advantage turned into nothing more than Fedorov vainly trying to feed Kovalchuk for a one-timer, and a shootout was required.
Belarus won the right to shoot first, and it unfolded as follows (according to the IIHF game-winning shots procedure, in which three different shooters from each team take alternate shots until a decisive goal is scored--and if the game is still tied after three shots by each team, the GWS continues with a tie-break shootout by one player of each team, with the shooting order reversed):
Round 1: BLR, Sergei Kostitsyn - Biryukov save. RUS, Mozyakin - goal, five-hole.
Round 2: BLR, Meleshko - goal, high backhand deke. RUS, Morozov - high backhand deke.
Round 3: BLR, Ugarov - Biryukov save on backhand attempt.
Belarus has only won one previous game versus the Russians. The 1-0 victory came at the 2000 IIHF World Championship in St. Petersburg, and current assistant coach Vladimir Tsyplakov scored the decisive goal.
“It’s not the first time we’ve played a tight game with them,” said Salei. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t win tonight. Still, it’s a breakthrough for our younger guys, who need to believe in themselves. We’ve got some pretty good guys up front. We need a little more on the back. I believe our national team has a future.”
Next up for Russia is Sweden on Saturday, while Belarus confronts the Czech Republic that day.