VANCOUVER – Jaromir Jagr was dancing and the Russians were beginning to wonder.
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 faceoff 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 Sunday afternoon in the crackling opener to a remarkable Olympic tripleheader at Canada Hockey Place.
Nobody is 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 Ovechkin on 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. And Ovechkin offered no deference to his elder admirer, driving his right shoulder into Jagr's chest and chin and dropping the 235-pounder to the ice.
Fedor Tyutin relayed to Alexander Semin to send the puck 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 to make it 3-1.
"Of course I saw him," Jagr said afterward. "I wanted to make a play. It was just a bad turnover – a bad mistake. The hit doesn't hurt. The mistake hurts because they scored a goal on that play. It's a bad feeling. But I have to come back."
Said Ovechkin of the hit that had the Russian bench standing and banging their sticks: "I respect everybody, but on the ice you don't have friends, you don't have nobody, only your teammates. You play right now for your country and it doesn't matter who you play against."
Having spent much of the game in a conservative posture and content to contain and counterattack, the Czechs then pressed to come back. And on Milan Michalek's goal – with Jagr providing room by posting up off the right post – the Czechs pulled within 3-2 with 5:09 left.
But Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabokov (23 saves) stood tall until Pavel Datsyuk scored into an empty net with 13 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.
But the Czechs emerged from pool play having served notice that, pre-tournament predictions aside, they are a force to be reckoned with in these Games.
"You know what? It reminds me of Nagano," Jagr told NHL.com. "We won the first two games, same thing. We played Russia for first place. We lost. Then we played them in the final (and won, 1-0, for the gold medal). It looks like the same scenario. We'll see what happens."
What happened during much of this game reflected a clash in disparate playing philosophies. The Russians, bottled up by the Slovaks in a 2-1 shootout loss two nights before, were determined to bust out. And with their new line combinations – Malkin centered Ovechkin and Semin (a Pittsburgh Penguin with two Washington Capitals) and Datsyuk moved between Ily Kovalchuk and Maxim Afinogenov – the Russians came hard.
The Czechs came out containing and backchecking. The result was a 12-5 Russian shots edge through one period. But when Tomas Plekanec scored a spinning 5-on-3 goal with 53.6 seconds left to answer an earlier power-play tally by Malkin, the score was tied going into the second.
Then the fun started.
A Viktor Kozlov goal 4:34 into the period, off some rare loose play in their own zone by the Czechs restored Russia's one-goal lead. But Jagr appeared to have tied it when, with 4:13 left in the second, he jammed away at a loose puck that was sitting behind Nabokov and it skittered over the goal line.
But referee Dan O'Halloran was in perfect position and ruled no goal. He went to the scorer's table to confer with video goal judges. But when he told them that he believed he had blown the whistle before the puck crossed the line, the play was not reviewable.
That sent it to the third. And it opened with an epic collision between the greatest player in Czech history and the man who might some day claim that designation among Russians.
Asked if he remained an Ovechkin fan even after being steamrolled by him, Jagr smiled.
"No question about it," Jagr said. "It was my mistake. I tried to do too much. I didn't see anybody to pass the puck to and I didn't want to dump it in.
"Of course. It changed the game. Especially for me, it was a horrible feeling. I felt like I let the guys down. But that's the sport."