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Radulov, Kovalchuk Lead Russia To Shootout Win

by Arpon Basu / Florida Panthers

SOCHI -- The Russian people likely will get to watch their men's hockey team play one extra game at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Of course, that was not the plan coming in.

But a plucky Slovakia team forced the powerhouse host nation to a shootout Sunday, all but assuredly costing Russia a chance to claim the fourth bye to the quarterfinals and forcing them to play an extra qualifying round game Tuesday.

Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk scored in the shootout to give Russia a 1-0 win against Slovakia to close Group A play.

Russia goaltender Semyon Varlamov stopped Michal Handzus and Tomas Tatar in the shootout, setting the stage for Kovalchuk to clinch the win as Russia's second shooter.

"Playing is better than training," Kovalchuk said. "We'll go out and focus. Now we can't lose, all the games could bring elimination."

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 beats Canada by seven goals later Sunday.

"Of course we're not happy about this game," Russia captain Pavel Datsyuk said in Russian. "We wanted to win it in regular time, not to go into shootouts or cause heart attacks."

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.

But that single point earned Sunday was an important one to Slovakia, allowing the team to pass Norway and Austria and move into 10th in the overall standings, setting up a date with the rival Czech Republic on Tuesday.

"It's going to be huge for both countries," Slovakia forward Tomas Tatar said. "It's going to be a battle."

The 11,907 flag-waving, screaming fans inside 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 on 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.

Laco could not say with much certainty whether this was the best performance of his career.

"It is hard to say," he said. "We did not win and you play the games to win. It was a good game but we were still unsuccessful."

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.

"We didn't want to just play defense but we knew we can't play really offensively and have two guys in the [offensive] zone. Then they get a breakaway," Tatar said. "We knew we had to stay patient and they will make some mistakes. We were and we got a point from the game.”

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.

"It was a hot goalie and the luck was on their side," Kovalchuk said. "We hit a couple posts, missed a couple empty nets. But what are you going to do? That's the way it is. We have to find a way to go through that."

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.

"When it hits the post," Laco said, "it's not a goal."

Russia got a scare midway through the second period when 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.

"I'm fine," he said after the game.

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.

Now the Russians have a couple of days to reflect and make some adjustments after their offensive machine was limited to seven goals in three games of group play, including a 2-for-13 success rate on the power play.

In a way, Kovalchuk might be right; perhaps Russia really could use san extra game to prepare for the medal round.

"It does not matter if we will have to play an extra match," Varlamov said. "The end result is that we will have to play against a good team eventually. And that is what we are focusing on."

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