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Host Russia holds off Slovenia in opener

by Arpon Basu
SOCHI -- Russia's first Olympic hockey game as the host nation couldn't have gotten off to a much better start.

For a long time there was a threat of it ending in disaster.

As the Russians held a slim 3-2 lead against Olympic neophyte Slovenia late in the second period, captain Pavel Datsyuk used two words to describe the feeling on the bench.

"Tension. Warning," the Detroit Red Wings center said.

That tension turned to relief when Russia came away with a 5-2 win Thursday against Slovenia in the opening Group A game for each team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin each scored within the game's first four minutes, but it was Valeri Nichushkin's goal at 3:59 of the third period that gave Russia a 4-2 lead. That goal allowed the 11,653 rabid fans at Bolshoy Ice Dome and millions across the country who feared losing to a team making its Olympic debut to breathe a little easier.


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"I feel pretty good. My line played well," Ovechkin, who also assisted on Malkin's goal, said when asked how the team played. "The team had a couple of mistakes but I think the pressure and the [nerves] that we have before the game, that was the result. I'm pretty sure the next game is going to be much better for us."

Ilya Kovalchuk and Anton Belov also scored for Russia and Semyon Varlamov made 12 saves.

Though many pinned the hopes of Slovenia on the play of Los Angeles Kings star center Anze Kopitar, it was a far lesser-known player who carried the country's hopes on his shoulders.

Ziga Jeglic, who plays for ERC Ingolstadt in Germany, scored the first two Olympic goals in Slovenian history and almost single-handedly caused an entire nation to panic by helping his country hang around with one of the world's hockey powers.

When asked how it felt to score his country's first Olympic goal, Jeglic smiled and then laughed as the realization of what he had done appeared to set in.

"When you say that, it's even better," he said. "It was great. I got really good passes on both of them and it kind of just went in. It was a great feeling."

Slovenia goaltender Robert Kristan played no small part with 30 saves, including 16 in the first period to keep the game within reach.

The Russians came roaring out of the gate, smothering the Slovenians early on and getting a goal from the face of these Olympics on his first shift.

Ovechkin picked up the puck at the Slovenian blue line and found himself on a 2-on-1 break with Malkin. The festive atmosphere in the building for the start of Russia's first game as hosts in an Olympic hockey tournament quickly grew in intensity with two of the country's biggest stars breaking in on goal.

The Washington Capitals captain decided to keep the puck, wound up and wired a wrist shot just under the crossbar 1:17 into the game, setting off an eruption. It was his eighth goal in his 13th Olympic game.

"Unbelievable. I would like to say thank you to our fans, they helped us," Datsyuk said of the atmosphere in the building. "We need it. They love hockey."

Less than three minutes later it was Malkin's turn. The Pittsburgh Penguins center picked up the puck at the blue line, broke in alone on Kristan alone and beat him with a nifty deke at 3:54 for the his sixth goal in his 12th Olympic game.

To almost everyone in the building, the rout was on.

Everyone except the Slovenians, that is.

The team didn't panic and managed to slow the Russian attack by the midpoint of the first period. Kristan turned aside a number of high-quality scoring chances to keep the deficit at 2-0 entering the second, and Jeglic scored 1:43 into the period to cut the deficit in half, wiring a wrist shot from the slot that beat Varlamov to the top corner.

The goal clearly had an impact on the high-powered Russians, who suddenly dialed back their aggression and managed three shots on goal through the first half of the second period as a subtle sense of panic began to creep in to the building.

"We had a good start, then [got] a little bit relaxed," Datsyuk said. "[We] started making bad decisions and it cost us."

The growing concern in the arena subsided somewhat when Jeglic took an undisciplined penalty in the offensive zone at 16:20 of the second to send Russia to its third power play of the game.

Slovenia had killed off the first two Russian power plays, but the offensive machine coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov puts out on the man advantage would not be denied a third time. Malkin grabbed the puck behind the net and found Kovalchuk alone in the slot for a blistering wrist shot that beat Kristan high at 17:48 to make it 3-1.

The goal restored a sense of excitement to the crowd, but it lasted all of 64 seconds. That's when Jeglic struck again, getting behind Belov and Nikita Nikitin to score a breakaway goal on Varlamov at 18:52 and allow Slovenia to enter the third period down only 3-2.

"I was really mad at myself because I made a stupid penalty and we know that their power play is top of the world. We were really preparing for them but you can't really prepare," Jeglic said. "It was really nice that I have a breakaway and score."

Nichushkin gave Russia some breathing room at 3:59 of the third when he powered to the net and slid the puck between Kristan's legs before crashing into him. A penalty initially was signaled by the referee, but a video review confirmed the puck entered the net before the Dallas Stars rookie made any contact with the goaltender.

Belov completed the scoring with a blast from the faceoff circle at 7:53 to make it 5-2, bringing the sense of jubilation and pride the game began with back into the arena and allowing the Russian fans to celebrate their team over the final 12 minutes.

But with a Group A showdown with the United States looming Saturday (7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC), Bilyaletdinov knows his team will need to make a few adjustments.

"A few things might need changing," he said through an interpreter, "but we'll work on it."  

While he's busy doing that, a proud hockey nation can rejoice. Their national team got the first game of these home Olympics out of the way, and even though the victory wasn't quite as easy as everyone might have expected, it's still a victory.

"It feels great; finally we're here," Ovechkin said. "It's the first game we played and we got the win. That's the most important thing."


SLO 0 2 0 - 2
RUS 2 1 2 - 5

First Period
1. RUS, Ovechkin (Malkin, Semin) 1:17
2. RUS, Malkin (Ovechkin, Medvedev) 3:54
Penalties - Mursak SLO (high-sticking) 5:01, Kopitar SLO (holding) 15:57, Tyutin RUS (delay of game) 18:47

Second Period
3. SLO, Jeglic (Robar) 1:43
4. RUS, Kovalchuk - PPG (Malkin, Radulov) 17:48
5. SLO, Jeglic (Sabolic, Kopitar) 18:52
Penalties - Yemelin RUS (high-sticking) 7:46, Jeglic SLO (tripping) 16:20

Third Period
6. RUS, Nichushkin (Tereshchenko) 3:59
7. RUS, Belov (Nikitin, Tereshchenko) 7:53
Penalties - Anisimov RUS (tripping) 12:34

SLO   4 4 6 - 14
RUS  18 9 8 - 35

Goaltenders (saves-shots against) - SLO: Kristan (L, 30-35); RUS: Varlamov (W, 12-14).

Power plays (goals-chances) - SLO: 0-3; RUS: 1-3

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