February 13 2014 08:27AM
In case you were wondering why I was watching Russia/Slovenia instead of USA/Slovakia, the explanation is here. I lost a friendly wager to Cam Charron on our podcast, and as a result I had to watch a game of his choosing. Against all odds, it wound up being a blessing.. because this game actually wound up being more competitive and intriguing than the butt whooping the States gave their Slovakian opponents.
Anyways, just past the jump I'll run through how Russia eventually wound up opening their slate of games in front of the home crowd by beating Slovenia, 5-2. There will be scoring chance data provided, to go along with some of my musings.
I particularly enjoyed this contest because it proved to be the ultimate narrative buster. After finally waking myself up around 4 AM PST, and getting my hands on some coffee, I settled in on the couch. Elliotte Friedman and Kelly Hrudey were doing a preview, and out of my respect for Elliotte's work, I actually listened.
Hrudey went on to make a few proclamations:
a) Alex Ovechkin likes all of the attention to be on him, and because he's overly flashy, he doesn't make for what you'd consider a good "leader".
b) Pavel Datsyuk on the other hand is the exact opposite. He has a workmanlike nature which he learned from Nicklas Lidstrom, with the Detroit Red Wings organization really rubbing off on him. He's undoubtedly Russia's leader.
c) Russia could quite possibly struggle out of the gate due to all of the butterflies they'd be having floating around their collective stomachs, as they took the ice for the first time in these Olympics in front of their raucous home crowd.
d) As a result, Slovenia could really benefit from that by jumping on them early. This is their first appearance in the Olympics so they've really got nothing to lose. This carefree nature lends itself to a freer style of play.
e) It'd be interesting to see how Russia played, but there's a definite possibility that they make fall into the trap of too many "solo efforts". After all, there's so much individual talent on this team, and if guys like Ovechkin and Malkin tried to do too much by themselves, the team could get into trouble.
.. And then the game happened, methodically deeming all of those thoughts irrelevant.
Russia came out of the gate like gangbusters, lighting the lamp twice before we'd even seen 4 minutes run off of the clock. The first was a wicked shot by Ovechkin as he went in on a 2-on-1 with Malkin on his other wing. You know what a leader sometimes does? Sets an example for his team, and you know, scores goals.
A few minutes later, Ovechkin made a beautiful little tip pass to Malkin at the offensive blueline, springing him. Malkin made no mistake about it. These two were dangerous throughout the entire game as you'd expect from two of the world's best players. One final note on Ovechkin: late in the 3rd period he broke up a potential Anze Kopitar scoring chance by backchecking. Of course this'll probably either slip under the radar, or somehow be chalked up as a negative because "why doesn't he do this in the NHL? Classic Russian!"
The 3rd best player in this one wasn't Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, or even Alex Radulov. Instead it was Valeri Nichushkin, who was a late addition to the lineup after it was initially reported that he'd be scratched. He played predominantly on a "4th line" with Popov and Tereshenko, and looked like a total nightmare. He terrorized the Slovenian team, with a perfect example of why he's such an intriguing talent coming when he bulled his way to the net, slipping one past the goalie, before bowling him over. That goal made it 4-2, pretty much icing it for the Russian team after a few tense moments.
A few final thoughts on Team Russia:
-It's a travesty that we don't get to witness Alex Radulov's prime in North America on a daily basis, because he's so darn good. He really stood out on Russia's de facto 2nd line, despite what I'd characterize as a poor performance from Pavel Datsyuk. He's clearly hurt, and I question Russia's chances to beat the top countries in the world if they can't get the all-world two-way version of Datsyuk.
-If they're controlling play with their skill and puck possession, maybe this won't come up as a big issue, but Russia's defense is porous at best. Their lack of foot speed was really exposed on a couple instances, which doesn't bode well for their chances moving forward. Then again, all of that immense firepower up front may wind up masking that fact.
Here are Team Russia's individual scoring chances:
Let's get to Slovenia, who really did an admirable job fighting back to not only avoid embarrassment, but actually give the Russians something of a scare in this one. They had a deer in the headlights look for the entirety of the opening period, and were pretty fortunate to be down by only 2 goals after 20 minutes. They can thank Robert Kristan's performance between the pipes, as he was peppered by anyone and everyone in the early going.
After the initial 10-minute onslaught, the Russians seemed to get a little bit cocky, trying to put together a highlight reel goal on every occasion. They still controlled the possession game, but weren't really actually getting any pucks on net, doing the Slovenians a favour.
Žiga Jeglič scored twice in the 2nd period, matching his goal output from this entire season thus far with Assat Pori in the SM-liiga. Meanwhile, the top line of Mursak-Kopitar-Rodman had a few shifts with sustained offensive zone pressure, but ultimately weren't able to generate any goals. Poor Anze Kopitar finally sees his team score 2 goals, and still can't win.
Anyways, the final result was 5-2, but it was a one-goal game in the 3rd period and I think that all things considered, the Slovenians handled themselves quite well. For a first showing against an opponent that was clearly their superior in every way, the fact that they didn't get routed is probably all they could ask for.
Here is their individual chance data (which was thankfully minimal, because the neon lime green number scheme on their jerseys made it quite difficult to see who was who):
Here are the cumulative chances for both teams:
|Scoring Chances (EV)||1st Period||2nd Period||3rd Period||Total|
|Russian||11 (8)||6 (4)||6 (6)||23 (18)|
|Slovenia||1 (1)||4 (4)||2 (1)||7 (6)|