Their vaunted attack had yet to explode in a sixth straight period against top-tier competition. And, truth be told, they were fortunate to be leading by a goal.
Then Alex Ovechkin announced his presence. With authority.
Ovechkin obliterated a deking Jagr with a shoulder-leading body bomb right at the center-ice face-off dot. The puck squirted loose and the Russians went the other way for the Evgeni Malkin goal that utterly changed the game. Russia held on (barely) to the two-goal lead that Ovechkin’s thunderclap and Malkin’s lightning strike provided for a 4-2 victory over their longtime hockey rivals in the crackling opener to a crackling opener to a remarkable Olympic tripleheader at Canada Hockey Place.
Nobody was a greater admirer of Ovechkin’s than Jagr, who dubbed the young superstar the game’s best player soon after the NHL returned from its work stoppage in 2005-06 with rookies Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby playing starring roles.
But Jagr decided to take on Ovechkin rather than avoiding the wrecking ball when he looked up and saw him early in the third period of a tense game. Jagr tried to deke Ovechkin -- but Ovi offered no deference to his elder admirer, driving his right shoulder into Jagr’s chest and chin and dropping the 235-pound legend to the ice.
Fedor Tyutin relayed the puck to Alexander Semin to send the play the other way. Semin then fed across for Malkin who, from one knee, squeezed a shot inside the near post to beat the slide across by Czech goaltender Tomas Vokoun and make it 3-1.
Having spent much of the game in a conservative posture and content to contain and counterattack, the Czechs then pressed to come back. Milan Michalek’s goal – with Jagr providing room by posting up off the right post – pulled the Czechs within 3-2 with 5:09 left.
But Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabokov stood tall the rest of the way to give this latest Eastern European battle to his side. Pavel Datsyuk sealed the win by hitting the empty net with 12.3 seconds left.
With the victory, the Russians pulled out the Group B title and the automatic berth in Wednesday’s quarterfinals that goes with it. The Czechs had to await the results of the later games on this epic Rivalry Sunday to determine whether they would earn the fourth bye to the quarters as the top second-place team -- or whether they’d have to play a perilous qualifying game Tuesday.
The Russians came out hitting and forechecking. The Czechs came out containing and backchecking. While that made for neither the end-to-end flying nor the pyrotechnics at either end that many had expected, it nevertheless produced some riveting hockey.
Then the fun and the controversy started.
With Jagr in the box for a holding penalty against Datsyuk that he felt he did not deserve, Russia broke through.
Sergei Gonchar, working the top of the slot, fired a straight-away slapper toward the maze of players in front. Datsyuk and Ovechkin, who were standing in the line of fire, whacked away at the rebound until the puck squirted to the right of Vokoun. Malkin pumped it home from an angle, squeezing it under Vokoun’s right arm for the game’s first goal 15:13 into the first period.
But when Russians Konstantin Korneyev and Sergei Fedorov committed tripping penalties 13 seconds apart later in the period -- Fedorov’s penalty came 165 feet from his own net -- the Czechs went on a long 5-on-3 power play. They cashed in, though not on one of the pretty plays they were trying to set up.
When four players came together along the boards inside the Russian zone, Czech captain Patrik Elias
chipped the puck to Tomas Plekanec, who spun deep and then whisked a shot inside the far post behind Nabokov to tie it with 53.6 seconds left in the period.
The thrust and parry continued through the second period, with the Russians pressing the attack and the Czechs effectively minimizing the damage.
Again, Russia went ahead with a late goal. This one was the result of some rare loose play by the Czechs in their own end – fishing for the puck by David Krejci and Tomas Fleischmann that allowed the disk to skitter to an open Viktor Kozlov at the inner rim of the right circle. Kozlov’s along-the-ice shot beat a moving Vokoun and it was 2-1 for the Russians.
Then the major controversy of the match unfolded.
On a Czech power play one minute later, Jagr was trying to jam a loose puck that was sitting behind Nabokov over the goal line. Russian defenseman Andrei Markov gloved it away but then the puck slid back over the goal line – clear by at least six inches.
However, referee Dan O’Halloran, in perfect position directly behind and on top of the net, ruled no goal because he was in the process of blowing the play dead when it crossed the line. After consulting with the video review officials, O’Halloran’s no-goal call was confirmed – although it caused much commotion when the replay was shown on the center video board.
-- John Dellapina