Alex Ovechkin-led Russians beat Slovenia 5-2
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
By LARRY LAGE
AP Hockey Writer
SOCHI, Russia (AP) Alex Ovechkin and the Russians got off to a breathtaking start against Slovenia, then relaxed. The result was a closer-than-expected win over a country playing hockey in the Olympics for the first time.
The Russians' jaw-dropping skills, though, were still enough to beat Slovenia 5-2.
"We started well, got the lead and then we stopped playing," Ovechkin said.
The surprising result led one Russian reporter to tell coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov it would be a "death sentence," to leave goaltender Semyon Varlamov in net against the U.S. on Saturday.
Yes, they're taking hockey pretty seriously here - perhaps as much as Canada did during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
Varlamov, who plays for the Colorado Avalanche, gave up two goals on just 14 shots and needed to kick his right leg out to deny Anze Kopitar when the game was still in doubt.
The Russians still had enough offense to overcome Varlamov's performance.
Ovechkin scored 1:17 after the puck dropped with a wrist shot that made the crowd roar. He made the flag-waving fans gasp 2:37 later with a drop pass to set up Evgeni Malkin's goal to give Russia a 2-0 lead.
"We were a little bit in awe at the start," said Slovenia's only NHL player, Anze Kopitar, who plays for the Los Angeles Kings. "Guys like Malkin and Ovechkin can make you pay pretty quick."
The Slovenians were respectable for two-plus periods. Ziga Jeglic had two goals in the second period - one before Malkin scored and one after - to pull his team within a goal.
"We said in our locker room, `We have nothing to lose,'" Jeglic recalled. "We played a little better and Russia was a little weaker. It's too bad in the end that we didn't surprise them."
Russia created a cushion in the first half of the third period when Valeri Nichushkin and Anton Belov scored.
Moments after the game was over, the team raised their sticks to a standing ovation from the more than 11,000 fans in the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
The crowd had chanted, "Ro-ssi-ya! Ro-ssi-ya!" before players were even on the ice, then kept it up throughout the game.
Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk, who is used to getting a lot of vocal support with the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena, called it an "unbelievable" atmosphere.
"I would like to say thank you to our fans," Datsyuk said. "They helped us."
Russia has 16 players from the NHL and two stars, Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov, who left the league to go back home to play in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Slovenia coach Matjaz Kopitar, the father of Anze Kopitar, said his team respected the Russians too much.
"That's the reason we started slow and shaky - they were somehow afraid," he said.
Soon after the start, Ovechkin charged down the left side of the ice and his wrist shot from the left circle was so sharp that Slovenia's goaltender, Robert Kristan, had no chance to stop it with his glove.
The Washington Capitals forward showed he could pass, too, lightly touching the puck near center ice to give Malkin an opportunity to score. The Pittsburgh Penguins star took full advantage, deking to his right in front of the net and shooting left to beat Kristan.
Instead of rolling to a rout, the Russians had to make some key stops and clutch shots to win.
Kristan, who faced 18 shots in the first period and 35 in the game, gave his team a chance to stay competitive.
A little more than a year ago, no one even thought the Slovenians would even be playing in the best-on-best tournament. Slovenia earned a spot by knocking off Belarus, Ukraine and Denmark to qualify.
"We're definitely not playing the flashiest hockey, but it got us here, so it's got to be something right," Anze Kopitar said.
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Updated February 13, 2014