A very light mood surrounded the Russian men’s hockey team before their opening game with Latvia. Smiles, jokes, and grins all around from the moment they got together, Head Coach Slava Bykov held a 45-minute practice session during the morning that accomplished very little.
The giddy mood could not be removed.
After watching the U.S. and Canadian teams put up victories earlier in the day, the ice surface would not be ideal after seeing so much action. But as great players, they weren’t going to have Latvia or the poor ice surface slow them down.
It didn’t take long for the tone of the game to be determined. Only 19 seconds in, the Latvians took the first of many penalties to come, sending out the Russian power play.
Although the power play eventually failed, they maintained zone time and built up momentum, getting the opening goal a few seconds after the penalty had expired off a tap-in from KHL MVP Danis Zaripov. The 28-year-old who plies his trade for Ak Bars Kazan may be an unknown commodity in North America, but he’s a crafty player that certainly knows how to find the high scoring areas.
The game continued with Russia completely dominating the first seven minutes of play, as Latvia only touched the puck one or two times in that time. But Latvian goaltender Edgars Masalskis held his own and made a couple fine saves.
His first slight error however, cost his team another goal. An innocent looking shot from Sergei Fedorov drifting across the middle could not be controlled by Masalskis, and the rebound was poked home by a diving Alexander Radulov.
2-0 for Russia, two assists for Fedorov.
It was a dream start for Russia, but the Latvians did not look comfortable at all and didn’t seem to do well with the pressure.
They started to build a little momentum after the halfway mark, as Russia took a penalty for too man men on the ice. Oddly enough, the Latvian power play came on looking twice as dangerous as its’ Russian counterpart, but San Jose Sharks netminder Evgeni Nabokov stood tall to make several stellar saves.
As the period was coming to a close, Masalskis got a taste of Alex the Great. A steal by Alexander Semin down low, he then picked out Ovechkin flying down the middle for a booming slapshot that we’ve seen so often. No chance for Masalskis, Ovechkin will miss zero percent of those shots.
Just like that, it’s 3-0 Russia heading into the first intermission.
The second period began as a bit of a chess match and a penalty-killing exhibition. Both teams had two power plays each in the first 12 minutes of action, all of them getting killed off rather easily. But even strength or man advantage, Latvia had a new-found composure and it paid off, as they were getting to the offensive zone with much more frequency.
But, after a hooking call on former Tampa Bay Lightning winger Martins Karsums, Russia’s power play finally slammed one home. Superb passing once again, Sergei Gonchar found Ilya Kovalchuk on the left circle wide open for a heavy slapshot.
He didn’t score from that position, but it created a juicy rebound and Evgeni Malkin took no time to deposit it into the empty net from a few feet out. Make it four for Russia.
For however defensive-minded the 2nd period was, that all changed in a hurry to start the final stanza. Three goals were scored in 57 seconds.
First was Herberts Vasiljevs beating Nabokov from nearly the same place Ovechkin had scored from earlier to give Latvia it’s first goal of the Olympics. Second was the forementioned Ovechkin, who was interfered with at center ice, but got right back up and flicked a wrister home from the left wall.
Third and final came from Zaripov once again. A slapshot from the right circle that appeared to be saved at first managed to roll through the pads of Masalskis. Just like that, it was 6-1 for Russia.
That was hardly the end of the scoring, however. The Sbornaya were not happy at all about allowing a goal. Forechecking with a new-found intensity, Malkin and Kovalchuk combined for another quick goal. Setting up shop behind the Latvian goal, Malkin picked out the newest New Jersey Devil for a quick release that found it’s way in.
Not even 30 seconds later, Latvia scored again, thanks to a tremendous slapshot from Girts Ankipans that beat Nabokov top shelf. In total, five goals scored in two minutes.
As time was melting away, Russian captain Aleksei Morozov added a final goal to tie Canada’s eight, another rebound that got away from Masalskis after Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov was allowed to waltz right on in.
Two goals for the NHL’s MVP, two goals for the KHL’s MVP.
A convincing 8-2 opening night triumph for the Red Machine. “Yeah, you know, it’s always nice when you get some good moments and a good start. We were ready for it, but it’s just a start and we have to continue how we play,” said Ovechkin after the game. The scoreline was dominant, but not half as dominant as it could have been.
Full game highlights can be seen here, thanks to NBC.
What did Russia do well?
The puck movement all night long was terrific. No matter who was on the ice, it seemed like they were always able to find the open man and hit him with a pass.
It allowed the Sbornaya to wear down the Latvian defenders as the game wore on, because they were chasing or playing defense for nearly three quarters of the game. Teams can also get easily frustrated, spending that much time pinned in their own end. But to the Latvians credit, they stayed composed for the most part.
A more offensively-gifted squad may not be so enthusiastic about playing defense.
The puck movement on the power play was so good it was almost too unselfish. Defensemen and forwards alike were able to pick apart the defense easily with precision passing.
If there was one Achilles’ heel for this team, defense was supposed to be it. Latvia had five power play chances and none of them amounted to much of anything. In fact, one of the best scoring chances didn’t come from Latvia, but instead a steal by Pavel Datsyuk in the neutral zone that nearly led to a breakaway goal.
Ilya Nikulin of Ak Bars had one of the strongest game defensively of any of the Russian defensemen. Nabokov was also superb on the penalty kill. He didn’t have to make a ton of saves, but he made the important ones when he had to.
Sure, Russia launched 45 shots at Masalskis. But it wasn’t the quantity, it was the quality. That number could have been much higher, but instead it was patience being shown by the snipers, waiting for the best scoring chances.
Every mistake made by the Latvian goaltender resulted in a goal for Russia. Every scoring chance where you would say “that puck should be in the net” ended in a goal. It was opportunistic scoring and capitalizing on the chances that should be converted.
Ovechkin scored a big goal with 30 seconds remaining in the first period and also responded immediately after Latvia scored their first goal in the third.
What could be improved before the game with Slovakia?
Not exactly what you would expect to see here, but Russia went 1-for-8 on the man advantage. Part of that can be contributed to the very solid play of Masalskis. More of the fault will fall on the shooters however.
The passing, as outlined before, couldn’t have been better. But players would pass up shots in order to make the perfect play and need to do a better job getting pucks through on goal. Oddly enough, this wasn’t the power play that everyone thought they would see.
Slava Bykov uses groupings, with each group consisting of five-man units. Those same units that were meant for even strength play were also used on the man advantage. We saw Malkin and Kovalchuk up front, but with Konstantin Korneev or Ilya Nikulin on the point. Only in the final power play of the game did Bykov send out a unit of Ovechkin, Semin, Datsyuk, Gonchar, and Markov.
Five-on-Five Chances Allowed
While the penalty killing was great, Latvia had just a few too many decent scoring opportunities at even strength for comfort. Nabokov bailed defensemen out on quite a few times, allowing chances that a better team surely would have finished.
There were also a few times during the game where the Latvians were able to pin a group in the Russian end for more than a minute at a time, aided by turnovers or failed clearing attempts. Every game, you’ll give up some scoring opportunities but not being able to get the puck out of the zone when possible needs to be done.
Just a few too many penalties on the whole. There’s always going to be a penalty or two a game that you have to take, but getting called for things like too many men on the ice or an undisciplined interference are very preventable.
Slava Bykov will have to clean that up before Thursday.
Grades (out of 10)
Black Line (Ovechkin, Semin, Datsyuk, Grebeshkov, Korneev): 7.5. Semin and Ovechkin worked together flawlessly, as expected. Datsyuk fit right in centering the two, while Korneev and Grebeshkov were responsible defensively. However, the unit did allow Latvia’s second goal due to a turnover in the neutral zone.
Red Line (Malkin, Kovalchuk, Afinogenov, Gonchar, Tyutin): 7. Malkin did his best to set up Kovalchuk throughout the game, and he led the Russians in shots with five due to that generosity. Gonchar and Malkin had great chemistry as well and Tyutin didn’t look out of place at all. Gonchar did not play his best game defensively though, and Afinogenov was swapped out later in favor of Radulov.
Blue Line (Morozov, Zinoviev, Zaripov, Markov, Nikulin): 8. Had themselves a very nice game together. The Ak Bars teammates got in behind the Latvian defense multiple times and although Markov was not playing at 100 percent, he was effective nonetheless. Nikulin had a more than solid game, showing off his physical side and his huge shot from the point.
White Line (Fedorov, Kozlov, Radulov, Volchenkov, Kalinin): 7. Fedorov couldn’t have played a better game, and Radulov was also a major force, which earned him a promotion. Volchenkov and Kalinin were not particularly strong defensively and that needs to change.
Goaltender (Nabokov): 8.5. He didn’t have a particularly busy evening, but made nearly all the saves he needed to make. Allowed a goal he would have liked back in the third period but hey, nobody is perfect.
Bykov has announced Ilya Bryzgalov will be in net against Slovakia instead of Nabokov. The decision was made prior to the victory over Latvia and had absolutely nothing to do with Nabokov’s performance.
Five Russian players finished with multiple points, and only five out of the 20 total did not register a point.
The puck drops against Slovakia on Thursday at 9 PM PST on CNBC. All photos are courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)