(Courtesy of Alex Livesey/Getty Images/
Losing in a shootout on Thursday to Slovakia did not sit well with anybody in the Russian locker room.
But despite dropping crucial points, the team remained upbeat even though they knew they had a lot of work to do. So in practice, they worked. They changed up the line combinations, they endlessly worked on the power play, but maybe most important, they quickly became a very motivated bunch.
In nature, their next task was not complicated. Beat the Czech Republic in regulation and the group was theirs. Take anything less than the full three points and they would face the possibility of no first-round bye in the knockout stage.
But actually completing that simple task would take every amount of skill and passion the Sbornaya had.
The game began at a rather slow pace, as the teams attempted to figure each other out. Slava Bykov sent out a unit of Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin, and Alexander Semin to start. But a few heavy hits and odd man rushes by the Great 8 set the tone and it was immediately noticeable that Russia had came to play.
About half way through the period, Russia got its first chance at redemption on the power play when Ilya Kovalchuk was upended in the neutral zone by Petr Cajanek.
Except instead, the Czechs put on a terrific display of penalty killing, never allowing the Russian power play to get set up. Or really even cross the blue line for that matter, as they capably shut everything down before it even got started. An utter waste of two minutes.
But, not even two minutes later, the Czechs took another penalty.
This time, the Russian power play managed to get set up and it paid quick divends. Sergei Gonchar managed to get a puck through, and the rebound was slammed just wide by Ovechkin. It then took a friendly ricochet to Malkin, who fired it home top-shelf.
1-0 to Russia, and Malkin scores his second power play goal of the tournament.
After the goal, the Czechs began to rebuild some momentum as they managed to get into the offensive zone. But they still were not getting any pucks on the net. Russia was also showing that they were much more committed to taking the body any time possible, always finishing checks.
Disaster struck for Russia late in the period, as they took two penalties in rapid succession, giving the Czechs a five-on-three for 1:47.
With a minute left before the horn, the Czech Republic took advantage of a failed clearance, as Tomas Plekanec scored to tie the game. San Jose Sharks netminder Evgeni Nabokov had came out, being a little too aggressive, and Plekanec found the outside corner.
The beginning of the second period was much more subdued after the thrilling first.
But once again, Russia was carrying the even strength play and hardly allowing anything the other way. They also seemed to build momentum from a killed penalty to Semin, where the Czechs were not allowed to set up much of anything.
Taking matters into his own hands, Alexander Radulov drove down the center, distracting two defenders before shuffling it off for Viktor Kozlov. With one quick swirling motion, the big man from Togliatti beat Tomas Vokoun far post to regain the lead for Russia.
After killing another penalty, the worst possible two-on-one situation occured.
Sergei Zinoviev was streaking in alongside Radulov but instead of shooting when he took the pass, Radulov instead tried to return it to Zinoviev, which failed dismally thanks to the rough ice. But chasing the puck into a corner, Radulov leveled a Czech defender, essentially throwing him onto Zinoviev.
Zinoviev would leave the ice gingerly and the Czechs headed to a power play.
However, no damage was done and the teams headed peacefully to the lockers.
Starting off the third period, Russia killed the remainder of Radulov’s penalty, but the turning moment in the game came soon after that. Ovechkin absolutely demolished Jaromir Jagr at center ice, allowing his teammate Semin to break in uncontested. Soaring down the left wall, Semin made a terrific pass across to Malkin, who clinically fired it past Vokoun. The man from the Magnetic Mountain had his third goal in as many games.
In a matter of seven seconds, the entire course of Group B changed. Ovechkin’s hit angered Roman Polak, who left his assignment on Malkin to retaliate on Alex the Great.
Just like that, Russia had a two goal lead and the Czech bench was floored.
The Czechs then had to alter their strategy, as the defense started taking a few more chances. They were getting a few more opportunites up front, but they also gave up breakaways to Kovalchuk and Radulov. Each time, Vokoun was up to the task, as he almost always is.
With five minutes left, Milan Michalek injected life into the Czechs, scoring easily from a few feet in front of Nabokov. Nothing he was going to do about that.
The crowd could sense a terrific end in store. Whatever kitchen sink the Czechs had, they were about to throw it at Nabokov in an effort to tie the game. But Nabokov stood tall, making several huge saves.
With the game on the line and an empty net for the Czechs, Russia showed it’s true Hart.
Ovechkin first delivered another big hit along the boards to free the puck. He quickly moved it out for Malkin in front of the bench. Instead of just dumping the puck deep, Malkin had his head up and found Pavel Datsyuk arriving late.
Datsyuk then manuevered into the Czech zone and deposited the puck into the wide open net.
In a group-winning play, all three Hart Trophy finalists from 2008 teamed up to produce the goal that saw Russia earn the important first-round bye.
Two goals for Malkin, two assists for Ovechkin, and a goal/assist for Datsyuk. Seven points in all between the three.
What did Russia do well?
First and foremost, the total team effort given by this team doubled both of the previous two games put together. It was a must-win game and they treated it like such.
From sacrificing the body to playing through pain, this team came together in a big way and did more than just redeem themselves from a poor performance against Slovakia. When they play as inspired as they did here, they proved to everyone they are indeed a Gold medal contender.
Once again, the penalty killing unit was elite. Although they did allow a 5-on-3 goal at the end of the first period, the group improved throughout the game. Datsyuk was incredibly solid here, as several times he was able to defend against two players at once on the point.
His play made the Czech point men force the play more than they would have liked. Anton Volchenkov also had a great game down low, getting in the way of more than a couple shots on the PK. The success with the man disadvantage has been a very pleasant surprise, as the area was not expected to be incredibly strong.
For the vast majority of the afternoon, they kept it simple. Never over-passing like they had done in the previous two games, never trying to do too much.
Consistently, they were getting to high scoring areas, putting themselves in a position to make something happen. The power play might have only scored one goal, but it looked deadly each time out and it was more a tribute to the fine play of Vokoun in net that the Sbornaya did not have more on the power play.
What needs to improve before the quarterfinals?
Russia took a few too many penalties and that could come back to haunt them in the later rounds. While some of the penalties were unavoidable, there were some that need to be eliminated.
Offensive-zone penalties like the one Radulov took after a missed 2-on-1 are not good. Shooting the puck out of the rink while on defense isn’t good either.
Nearly every defensive-zone faceoff or faceoffs on the penalty kill, the Czechs won it. Russia was thoroughly dominated in the circle and the only reason it wasn’t more pronouced was because they were winning battles against the wall and outplaying the Czechs at even strength.
But the faceoff percentage needs to improve or find a way to get the best faceoff men on the ice in key situations.
While the penalty killing was great, one aspect of it was not at all. At least five different occasions, Russian players had the opportunity to clear the puck out of the zone after winning possession, but just couldn’t do it.
They would clear it back to the points, try to lob defensemen only to have it fail, or give the puck right back because they were looking for the deep pass.
It’s not a major problem, but just needs to be worked out in practice.
Grades (out of 10)
Black Line (Ovechkin, Semin, Malkin, Gonchar, Tyutin): 9. From the second the puck was dropped, this newly formed group was utterly dominant and brought excitement every time they got to the offensive zone. Ovechkin and Malkin showed exactly why they are two of the best players in the world.
Red Line (Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, Afinogenov, Grebeshkov, Korneev): 7. Showed some decent chemistry. Datsyuk had a phenomenal game and Kovalchuk had his moments but Afinogenov never made an impact.
Blue Line (Zinoviev, Zaripov, Morozov, Markov, Nikulin): 6.5. Not a particularly strong game from any one player, but they played decently. Morozov and Zaripov both had their chances on the power play and did next to nothing. Markov passed up on a wide open shot from four feet away.
White Line (Fedorov, Kozlov, Radulov, Volchenkov, Kalinin): 8. A very strong performance. Fedorov once again had a nice defensive game, Kozlov scored on a pass from Radulov and Volchenkov was the penalty kill leader. Were currectly awarded with bonus playing time.
Russia, with seven points from three games, clinches the bye into the quarterfinals.
Nabokov will most likely get every start from here on.
Below is Ovechkin’s hit on Jagr and the ensuing Malkin goal.