Olympic Update: February 17th, 2018
Saturday was a busy day for the Russian hockey teams in South Korea; for the first time at the 2018 Games, both the men’s and women’s sides were in action on the same day. And for both it turned out to be a very pleasant Saturday indeed! Read on, therefore, for a couple of match recaps and some associated notes and quotes.
For the Russian men’s team, it was the United States as opponent on Saturday, in the final match of Group B’s round-robin schedule. Coach Oleg Znarok kept the same lineup that had beaten Slovenia 8-2, with Vadim Shipachyov and Alexei Marchenko out in favour of Ilya Kablukov and Yegor Yakovlev. For the third straight game, Vasily Koshechkin got the start in net, this time up against a fellow KHL netminder in Jokerit Helsinki’s Ryan Zapolski.
One of the few dark clouds in the rout of Slovenia had been the play of forward Nikolai Prokhorkin, who had somehow contrived to go -2 in that game. No matter, he swiftly made amends against the U.S., opening the scoring for the Russian side seven minutes in. Two minutes into the second period, up stepped Prokhorkin again, to make it 2-0 — both goals assisted upon by “13th forward” Sergei Mozyakin.
That done, Prokhorkin turned the reins over to Ilya Kovalchuk. At literally the last second of the middle frame, with the teams playing 4-on-4 (it had been something of a chippy affair), “Kovi” broke Pavel Bure’s Russian Olympic goals record when the 12th of his Games career made it 3-0. The goal also put this match more-or-less out of reach, and it became truly so when Kovalchuk’s second of the game arrived just 30 seconds into the final period (Sergei Andronov picked up an assist on each of Kovalchuk’s goals). From there on, the only question was whether Koshechkin could get the clean sheet; he could and did, have made 29 saves at the final buzzer. The 4-0 final score, combined with Slovenia’s later win over Slovakia, assured the Russian team of top spot in Group B, and a bye to the quarterfinal round. Groups A and C will finish their round-robin schedules on Sunday, after which there will be a lot more clarity about who the Russians might face at that point.
A brief foofaraw arose after the game, when American coach Tony Granato publicly objected to Znarok’s having deployed his top powerplay unit in the last couple of minutes, with the win in the bag. However, the Russian coach could legitimately claim that he did so because his team was still in a position where overall goal-difference might matter as a tie-breaker — it did not in the end, but Znarok didn’t know that then. As for Granato, he was trying to give his players some extra motivation in case the two sides meet again later in the tournament, which is fair enough. Nothing to see here, move along.
As for Prokhorkin, he passed much of the credit for his redemptive game on to his veteran line-mate Mozyakin:
Kovalchuk, when asked about breaking the goals record, joked about the possibility of the 46-year-old Bure coming back to reclaim it:
The Russian men’s team now gets a three-day break before their quarterfinal, whoever the opponent turns out to be. Of course, that is both a boon and a potential pitfall for the coaching staff, who will need to make sure that players don’t come out flat when the medal round begins for them.
So it was a very good day for the men’s team — top spot in the group clinched via a handsome shutout win over a major rival — but even that paled in comparison to the history made by the Russian women’s side on Saturday. The women came into their quarterfinal match against Switzerland having lost all three round-robin games, and having been out-scored 15-1 in the process, although, as coach Alexei Chistyakov has noted a couple of times already, they had done better than in previous Olympics against the North American powerhouses. Chistyakov took an unusual step on Friday, cancelling his team’s on-ice practice and sending everyone off to watch the men’s game against Slovenia. The reason, he said, was to let his players “clear their heads.”
There were other storylines in place as well for this game: revenge was very much on the Russian players’ minds as they prepared to take on the Swiss, with memories of their defeat at the same stage of the Sochi Games, and to the same opponent, still fresh. Four years ago, the story of the game was the superb Swiss goalie Florence Schelling, who made 41 saves in a 2-0 victory to end Russia’s chances of a medal at their home Olympics. And just in case the psychological pressure on the Russian side wasn’t enough already, Schelling would be back between the pipes on Saturday for Switzerland, who topped Group B with a 3-0 record against Korea, Japan, and Sweden. Could anyone on the Russian team step up? Well yes, as it turned out, and on this day it was — among others — Tornado Moscow Oblast forward Anna Shokhina, one of the players who was there for that loss in 2014.
Shokhina had scored Russia’s lone goal of the round-robin, and she opened her team’s account in the first period against the Swiss in extraordinary fashion. Russia had come out understandably fired up, but perhaps a bit too much so; a couple of early penalties handed them a minute-long two-player disadvantage to deal with. But there was Shokhina, stealing the puck after an error by Swiss forward Lara Stalder and sweeping in alone on Schelling. Shokhina showed supreme patience, waiting until the Swiss goalie had committed herself before clinically firing home for the extremely rare 3v5 shorthanded goal and a shock 1-0 lead. It was an immensely encouraging goal, but there was still a very long road to travel…
The second period had been a bleak wasteland for the Russian team during the group stage of the tournament: eight goals given up to their opponents without reply. And it looked like a similar tale would be told in the quarterfinal when Alina Müller, leading scorer in the women’s tournament so far, equalized for Switzerland just 48 second into the middle frame; she beat first the Russian defence and then goalie Nadezhda Morozova with a fine individual effort. Things got worse for the Russian women: at about the halfway mark of the period, Stalder made amends for her first-period error by putting her team ahead with a powerplay goal. 2-1 for the Swiss, and suddenly things looked a bit daunting.
But this time, the Russian players seized the game right back. Two minutes after Stalder’s goal, level terms were restored thanks to Viktoriya Kulishova. The second youngest player on the squad at 18, she has received very limited ice-time at her first Olympics (less than ten minutes in this game), but she was on hand to fight through a hit and slam home a rebound for the 2-2 goal. Then, with just a minute of the first forty remaining, and Russia on a powerplay, Liana Ganeyeva’s shot deflected in off a Swiss player to put her team back in front (Shokhina drew an assist for her second point of the game). The dreaded second period had been survived, and the Russian players went into the final frame once again enjoying a one-goal lead.
The third period was always going to be a tense one, but eight minutes in Shokhina got her team just a bit of breathing space with third point of the afternoon, as she fed her line-mate with club and country, Yelena Dergachyova, for the goal that made the score 4-2. The Swiss kept coming, and Morozova had to be very sharp indeed to keep out a shorthanded chance with seven minutes left. Seconds later, though, and with the Russian powerplay still in effect, Shokhina once again took matters into her hands. Cutting astutely to the net, she buried Dergachyova’s fine cross-ice pass behind Schelling. 5-2 it was, and the Russian players had one foot in the semi-final. There was some tension yet to come: in the final minutes the Swiss earned a powerplay and pulled Schelling to give themselves a six skaters to four advantage. But Russian captain Olga Sosina, fittingly enough, scored her team’s second shorthanded goal of the game into the empty cage, and that was all she wrote. 6-2 was the final score, and the Russian women’s team is now guaranteed a shot at a medal.
It was not by any means a perfect performance from the Russian team, but it was by far their best of these Games — coach Chistyakov will have been especially pleased to see his team pull itself together after that early second-period wobble. Shokhina’s four-point contribution to the cause was the most vital, particularly that opening goal: a calmly-taken chance against an intimidating netminder, and with her own team down two players. The 20-year-old Tornado forward and defending Women’s Hockey League scoring champion described the game as the “the best of my career so far.”
Nor should we overlook Morozova’s performance in net. Though she faced only 19 shots (her team took 21), she was called upon some very difficult saves at some very key moments, none of them bigger than her stop just before Shokhina made it 5-2. Team captain Sosina, for her part, also pointed to the Kulishova’s somewhat unexpected contribution to the scoring:
Coach Chistyakov, in his post-game comments, reiterated his previous words about making progress over previous Olympics, but demurred when asked who he thought his best players were against Switzerland:
“I would not like to single out anyone. Today they played as a team. Someone was a little better, someone else not so good. But the girls fought for each other, fought for the country, and deservedly earned the result.“
Chistyakov also described the win as “historic,” and there were indeed a couple of firsts for the Russian women’s team on Saturday. Most importantly, the win sends the Russians to the semifinal for the first time in the history of women’s hockey at the Games (this was duly acknowledged in comments today by Russian sports minister Pavel Kolobkov, among others), and thus already betters their final result from Sochi. Furthermore, and at least as near as I can determine, this was the first time that the Russian women’s team had scored six goals in an Olympic match (UPDATE: Not so — Russia scored six in one game during the placement rounds at the 2006 and 2014 Olympics, against Switzerland and Japan, respectively).
A final comment from Sosina, who had talked prior to the quarterfinal about her team’s desire for revenge for 2014:
“[Schelling] caused us anguish at the previous Olympics, beat practically our whole team… The defeat of four years ago, at our home Olympics, had been sitting in my head. It was a shame. We had to pay that debt.“
Consider it done. Next up for the Russian women’s team: Monday’s semifinal against Canada. Even with the offence back on track, and buoyed by that win over Switzerland, Russia will still go into this one as heavy underdogs, having lost to the Canadians 5-0 in the round-robin. But a jolt of confidence can take a team some ways, and we will see what happens!
Thank you for reading!