COLOGNE – Russia's superstars had to put in a full workday, but they came home with a 3-1 over Slovakia in their first game of the tournament.
Maxim Afinogenov and Alexander Ovechkin got a goal a piece, Viktor Kozlov a goal and an assist, and Vasili Koshechkin made 32 saves in front of a capacity crowd of 18,522. Ivan Majesky scored Slovakia's lone goal.
"Most important was that we won, got a lot of chances, but Budaj saved the game for them. The Slovaks played better in the third and that’s when our goalie came through," said Afinogenov.
Sometimes things go just as expected. The immovable object stays immovable. The underdogs will stay under. And the powerful force can’t be stopped. Or, in hockey World Championship terms: Russia can’t be beat, and Slovakian defence does get tired. It can be close, but that, too, was to be expected. It was Slovakia, after all, and while it's not the same team as in the Olympics, the spirit is the same.
"Yes, Vancouver was in the back of our mind and now to win, we can get that off our shoulders," Kozlov said.
The nature of the game was clear from the get-go. Russia, led by its big guns, team captain Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Maxim Afinogenov, kept pressuring Slovakia, and peppering Slovakian goaltender Peter Budaj with shots.
"It wasn’t pretty, but we got it done," said Sergei Fedorov.
"In my career I’ve never experienced anything like the atmosphere here tonight, outside of Russia. I’m glad we won because it’s a big celebration for the fans here and in Russia. We have to thank those fans. It was a nervous day all day long because the game was so late. Tomorrow is a new day," he added.
Slovakia battled through even Russia’s two-man advantage early in the game, but 14:51 into the first period, Afinogenov got the puck in the high slot, he took a step in, and sent a wrist shot between a Slovakian defenceman and his stick, beating Budaj high on the stick side.
"It was a good play by Kozlov, he got me the puck in an empty space. I tried to make a move and put the shot in the corner. It was a big day for Russia, a big win, so we had a lot of emotion in the game," Afinogenov said, referring to his wild goal celebration.
Russia outshot Slovakia 31-19 in the first two periods, and after Alexander Ovechkin got his first of the tournament with a snappy wrist shot after a faceoff that Sergei Fedorov won, Slovakia seemed beat. Ovechkin’s shot ricocheted in off a Slovakian defenceman.
With three minutes remaining in the second period, Slovaks seemed to have drunk a special sports drink. They kept the puck in the Russian zone for over a minute and a half, creating several scoring chances, but Vasili Koshechkin in Russia’s goal was perfect.
That confidence carried over to the third period, and 3:51 into the final frame, Ivan Majesky took Slovakia to the board. The big defenceman fired a wrist shot from high slot and beat Koshechkin, and made it a one-goal game.
Slovakia was much more active in the third period and got its chance with five minutes remaining when Maxim Sushinsky took a penalty for hooking, but couldn't capitalize on it.
Slovakia got their last powerplay chance with two minutes remaining. Slovakia got close but Viktor Kozlov got one better when he sent the puck to an empty Slovak net from the neutral zone, to seal the final score, 3-1, with 54 seconds remaining in the game.
"I think we played a good game and we did the things we wanted to do. We were right in it until they got the (empty net) goal. They have a good skating team and they are good with the puck, but I think we played well," Marek Svatos said.
However, Russia, the favorites to go all the way, did what was expected of them.
"We can only prepare for each game. There are no easy games, we saw that tonight and there’s always pressure. But we won the game. Not we can focus on the next one," Afinogenov said.
Both teams will be back in action on Tuesday. Russia meets Kazakhstan, and Slovakia takes on Belarus.
"Now we can’t lose anymore. We can think about this game for a couple of hours and then start to get ready for the next one," Slovakia's defenceman Richard Lintner said.