"I feel pretty good," said Sulak. "It's perfect that we won the game and I was able to score. It's a pretty huge win for us. I scored my first goal at the Olympics so it feels amazing."
For Team ROC, widely criticized after scoring just three goals in its first two games, this was the day the offence finally fired. And for Andrei Chibisov, promoted to the first line in place of Mikhail Grigorenko, there were positives despite the loss.
"We found our game, we started to attack more," he said. "We created chances and we came back from 2-4. We have a good team spirit and we turned things around.
"I'm happy with our team. We didn't give up and we did some really good things. We created plenty of chances with Vadim Shipachyov. I feel really positive about our line and I think Vadim is happy too."
Group B had a reputation for low-scoring hockey – until today. A crazy contest at the National Indoor Stadium saw 10 goals from 10 different scorers in regulation as the ROC and Czechia went toe-to-toe in a pulsating battle. At one stage, the teams exchanged seven tallies in 10 minutes, 15 seconds of game time either side of the second intermission in a clash that truly set the men's tournament alight.
Both teams could have won it inside 60 minutes, particularly in a breathless third period. That passage began with a crazy sequence of five goals in barely five minutes that saw Czechia open a two-goal cushion before ROC battled back to lead. Tomas Hyka became the 10th goalscorer on the night to tie it up and, ultimately, send us to overtime.
"It was a crazy game, it happens, that's hockey," said another Czech scorer, Michael Spacek. "The first few games we didn't see many goals and tonight we did.
"It's always a tough game against the Russians but I think we played well as a team and it gives us some confidence. We need to take the positive stuff and focus for the next game."
However, Nikita Gusev wasn't so happy despite the thrilling encounter. "How can we say that was a fun game?" he said. "We lost, that’s no fun. We didn’t change anything [from the previous games], we tried to shoot more, create more chances."
Team ROC got off to a great start in this game with a fifth-minute goal. Gusev’s stretch pass sent Vladimir Tkachyov down the left-hand channel and the Traktor Chelyabinsk forward flashed his shot over Simon Hrubec’s glove from the face-off dot. That was the first of three helpers for Gusev.
Given that Ivan Fedotov had yet to concede in the tournament, an early goal was the last thing the Czechs wanted to see. And the ROC net continued to enjoy great protection when the CSKA Moscow netminder pulled off a fantastic save to rob David Krejci of a certain score. The veteran Czech was about to celebrate a close-range finish, only for Fedotov to slide across, arm outstretched, and pluck the puck from the air.
But Fedotov’s unbeaten streak came to an end after 132 minutes when Czechia found a power play goal. Jan Kovar put up the screen and that prevented the goalie from getting a clear view of Tomas Kundratek’s point shot. The defenceman, who played in China with Kunlun Red Star, fired home on his return to Beijing.
In the latter half of the first period the Czechs got on top, with another power play chance for Kundratek. However, the ROC finished strongly and Anton Slepyshev tested Hrubec with the last meaningful opportunity of the session.
Hrubec was busy at the start of the second period, with an arm save to deny Mikhail Grigorenko representing the highlight of the early exchanges. And when ROC got a 5-on-3 power play, Alexei Zhamnov’s team regained the lead. The Czechs dug deep to try to kill the penalties, but once back to four men the defence was breached and Nikita Nesterov got his team’s first power play goal in these Games.
Late in the session, though, came a game-changing incident – and it was a flashpoint that had been coming. Earlier in the game, Dmitri Voronkov had enjoyed several robust exchanges with the likes of Roman Cervenka and Lukas Klok. This time, though, the Ak Bars Kazan youngster found himself in hot water after elbowing Lukas Sedlak in the head. The officials reviewed the penalty and after watching the video, the ROC forward was ejected from the game.
Sedlak said after the game: "It was unfortunate. He thought that I was coming to hit him, but I was trying to get the puck. That’s why my head was down. So he thought I wanted to lay a hit on him and he tried to respond. He hit me in the head. I’m sure it was right in the head but I don’t think he wanted to do that. It was just an unfortunate set of circumstances. If I wasn’t reaching for the puck, it would have been a clean hit. For me, Voronkov was just unlucky."
ROC head coach Alexei Zhamnov, meanwhile, said that what he said to Voronkov after the incident would stay in the locker room, but added that he didn't shout at anyone and asked the team to be alert to the refereeing.
Boosted by that major, Czechia moved ahead on two goals in 35 seconds at the end of the second period. A minute into the power play, Krejci tied it up when he rifled home a one-timer off Cervenka’s feed. The experienced sniper was the free man in the left-hand circle and was not about to pass up that opportunity. Then, from a similar place on the ice, Michael Spacek fired Sulak’s pass beyond Fedotov to send the Czechs into the second intermission with a lead and more than two minutes of power play to come when play resumed.
Team ROC killed the remainder of that penalty, but once the teams were back at equal strength the Czechs increased the lead. Klok, who plays in Russia with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk of the KHL, grabbed his first goal of the Games with a vicious rising effort from the top of the left-hand circle.
Far from being the end of the story, that goal merely set up the next plot twist. Kirill Semyonov provided an instant response. The Avangard Omsk man, who had a brief spell with the Maple Leafs earlier this season, latched onto Plotnikov’s feed and spun to fire in a shot. Then Gritsyuk, the youngest forward on the ROC roster, picked the perfect time to get his first Olympic goal. Gusev managed to steer a bouncing puck between two Czech defencemen and the 20-year-old Avangard forward took the puck to the net and beat his clubmate Hrubec to tie the game at four.
"My family was waiting for that goal, and I'm glad that I scored it on Simon," Gritsyuk said. "The puck came to me and I couldn't quite control it, but Nikita [Gusev] tidied it up and gave me a chance. I went to the net at speed, but I wouldn't say I pulled off an unexpected move. I had a similar chance in the previous game but couldn't score."
The action kept coming, and the defending champion moved back in front when Andrei Chibisov’s deflected shot deceived Hrubec and made it 5-4. But the lead lasted a mere 35 seconds before Tomas Hyka fired the puck along the goal line and enjoyed the bounce as it squeezed through Fedotov’s pads to tie the game yet again.
The drama still wasn’t done. The Czechs were aggrieved when Vladimir Sobotka was called for slashing, but produced a strong penalty kill to keep the scores level. And when Sobotka got out of the box he was close to grabbing a goal of his own when he got on the end of an odd-man rush but fired wide of the target.
"It was a fun game for the spectators, better than winning 1-0," said Czech head coach Filip Pesan. "Both teams played their part, both teams played some good hockey. Of course I'm happy with our power play, it got four of our goals. We made a few changes and I'm glad that they worked out."
That was the last big chance in regulation as the teams reached the 60-minute mark deadlocked at 5-5 - but that Sulak power play goal made the difference.
Despite today's loss, Team ROC takes first place in Group B and claims a bye to the quarter-finals on Feb. 16. Czechia finishes in third place with five points and goes into the qualification round.