After Varlamov stopped both Slovak attempts in the shootout, Kovalchuk beat Jan Laco to seal the Russians’ second win in the preliminary round. Kovalchuk, who missed the final minutes of the second period with a right leg injury, kissed his index finger as he skated back to his teammates through deafening cheers.
“That’s every game here. It’s very intense,” Kovalchuk said. “Even if you play against Slovenia or the USA, or today against Slovakia, it doesn’t matter. We couldn’t find a way how to score, but we found a way to win.”
Kovalchuk didn’t appear to steal any tactics from Oshie, whose four shootout goals turned him into the hero of the preliminary round. After Radulov beat Laco with a diabolical top-shelf backhand, Kovalchuk deked Laco to the ice and beat him easily to the stick side.
A day after the Russians’ 3-2 shootout loss to the unbeaten U.S. team, they barely emerged from a tense, defense-dominated game with Slovakia, which lost its first two games in Sochi in embarrassing fashion. Another boisterous sellout crowd at Bolshoy Ice Dome grew increasingly nervous as the deadlock stretched deep into the third period, but the Russian stars delivered — barely.
“Yesterday’s game definitely had an effect, because we spent a lot of energy and emotions,” Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said through a translator. “Guys found it difficult to play today, but I must say Slovakia was very hard to play against.”
With one win, one overtime win and one overtime loss in the preliminary round, Russia failed to earn an automatic berth in the quarterfinals and must play a qualifying elimination game against winless Norway on Tuesday. The Russians finished fifth in the 12-team field in preliminary-round play — not bad, but not what their eager fans expected.
But perhaps the Russians shouldn’t be worried: After all, Canada was forced to play a qualifying game in its home Olympics four years ago, eventually rolling through four elimination games in Vancouver to win gold. No team that went unbeaten through the preliminary round has won gold medals since the NHL arrived at the Olympics in 1998.
Russia also got a stellar game from Varlamov, who started the opener, but sat behind Sergei Bobrovsky for the loss to the U.S. Varlamov stopped Milan Bartovic twice on a breakaway chance late in the second period, and Slovakia’s shootout attempts from Michal Handzus and Tomas Tatar went nowhere against the Colorado goalie.
“It does not matter if we will have to play an extra match,” Varlamov said. “The end result is that we will have to play against a good team eventually.”
The result was practically welcomed by the winless Slovaks, who have struggled in Sochi: They fell 7-1 to the Americans before allowing tiny Slovenia to record its first Olympic victory. Slovakia must face the Czech Republic in the qualification round Tuesday.
Laco was a surprise starter in place of his winless team’s two NHL goalies, and the Kontinental Hockey League backup nearly stole a win over the powerful Russian offense by making 36 saves.