Recap: Radulov, Kovalchuk lead Russia to shootout win
SOCHI -- The Russian people likely will get to watch their men's hockey team play one extra game at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
With the shootout win, which is worth two points in the standings (regulation wins are worth three points), Russia cannot mathematically pass Canada, Finland or Switzerland to claim the wild-card spot in the quarterfinals.
The only way Russia still could claim the wild card would be if Canada beats Finland by eight goals or Finland beat Canada by seven goals later Sunday.
Russia finished play in Group A with one win, one overtime/shootout win and one overtime/shootout loss, and in all likelihood will need to play a qualification game Tuesday in order to advance. Slovakia also will play a qualification game after finishing last in Group A with two regulation losses and one overtime/shootout loss.
The 11,907 flag-waving, screaming fans inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome cheered their team just as passionately as they had 24 hours earlier against the United States. But as the game wore on the tension in the building appeared to mount until the victory finally was confirmed with Kovalchuk's shootout goal.
Slovakia coach Vladimir Vujtek chose to go with Jan Laco of Donbass Donetsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in goal, leaving Jaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues as the backup and Peter Budaj of the Montreal Canadiens scratched.
The move paid off.
Laco has a .942 save percentage and a 1.47 goals against average in 12 games as the backup to Michael Leighton with Donbass this season, and he went toe to toe with Varlamov and then some.
Laco made 15 saves in the third period alone as the Russians pressed to score in regulation, and he capped his performance with a glove save on Alex Ovechkin at the buzzer to send the game to overtime.
Over the first 40 minutes Laco got a lot of help from his teammates.
The Slovaks appeared content to sit back and protect Laco, rarely sending more than one forechecker into the Russian zone and clogging the neutral zone. The strategy appeared to befuddle the high-powered Russian attack, which generated 16 shots on Laco while the Slovaks had 22 on Varlamov through 40 minutes.
A Russian power play that features some of the most potent offensive players in the tournament also was stymied by Laco and the Slovaks, going 0-for-5.
Three of the five power plays the Russians had came in the third period, and twice they came within a few inches of taking the lead.
Just before the five-minute mark of the third period defenseman Yevgeni Medvedev took a shot from the point that was tipped by Alexander Radulov in front. The puck bounced off the crossbar, off the post and landed in the crease, where it was cleared by defenseman Andrej Sekera.
A video review at the next stoppage in play confirmed that the puck stayed out.
Later, at about the 12-minute mark, Evgeni Malkin took a shot from the faceoff circle that bounced off the far post.
Russia got a scare midway through the second period when forward Ilya Kovalchuk left the game with an apparent ankle injury. Kovalchuk was fighting for a puck with Slovakia forward Richard Panik in the Russian zone when the two fell awkwardly to the ice. Kovalchuk appeared to be in pain as he writhed on the ice for a few moments, but he was able to get up and limp toward the Russian bench under his own power.
Kovalchuk remained on the bench for a few minutes testing the leg and standing on it before leaving for the dressing room. However, he came out for the third period and played a regular shift.
The best scoring chance over the first two periods was for the Slovaks, when Milan Bartovic was sent in alone on Varlamov with about two minutes to play in the second. Bartovic's first shot was turned aside by Varlamov, but he got a hold of the rebound and forced Varlamov to stretch to keep it out right at the post.