GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 23: Olympic Athletes from Russia's Mikhail Grigorenko #25, Ilya Kablukov #29 and Vyacheslav Voinov #26 celebrates after a second period goal scored by Vladislav Gavrikov #4 (not shown) on Team Czech Republic during semifinal round action at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Russians get chance to end 26-year gold drought
Two second-period goals in 27 seconds sparked the Olympic Athletes from Russia to a 3-0 semi-final win over the Czechs and a berth in the 2018 gold medal game.
The OAR team will face the winner of the Canada-Germany semi-final on Sunday at 13:10 at the Gangneung Hockey Centre.
Nikita Gusev, Vladislav Gavrikov and Ilya Kovalchuk scored for Russia, and towering netminder Vasili Koshechkin, who has allowed just five goals in five games, got his tournament-leading second shutout. Shots favored the Czechs 31-22.
"We're here for one reason," said Kovalchuk. "I think we deserve to be in the final and we'll see that the best team will win."
No Russian team has won gold at the Olympics since the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) team at the 1992 Albertville Olympics -- or even made the final. The 1992 team starring Vyacheslav Bykov and Andrei Khomutov defeated the Canadians with Eric Lindros and Joe Juneau by a 3-1 score.
On balance, coach Oleg Znarok’s team has met expectations here in PyeongChang. With NHL non-participation, 2018 is a prime opportunity for them to take top spot with their glut of KHL talent.
Paced offensively by SKA St. Petersburg’s Gusev and Kovalchuk and CSKA Moscow’s Kirill Kaprizov, the Russians lead the Olympics with 23 goals. After a sloppy 3-2 opening loss to underdog Slovakia, they have trampled their opponents with four straight wins, including 8-2 over Slovenia, 4-0 over the U.S., and 6-1 over Norway.
2018 captain Pavel Datsyuk (Stanley Cup 2002, 2008 and Worlds gold 2012) is now one win away from joining the IIHF’s Triple Gold Club.
Datsyuk told journalists: "We have a bit of time before the final, we have a chance to recover. And if you don't ask me too many questions, I'll have more time to recover."
The Czechs have only one Olympic gold, the historic 1998 Nagano triumph at the first “NHL Olympics.” In that final, Petr Svoboda’s 1-0 goal won it and MVP Dominik Hasek got his second tournament shutout, throwing their Central European nation into ecstasy. But there will be no chants reminiscent of “Hasek to the Castle!” this month in Prague.
The last time the Czechs faced a Russian team in the Olympic playoffs, Tomas Vokoun earned a 28-save shutout in a 3-0 bronze-medal victory in Turin 2006. At least the Czechs still have a shot at repeating that feat against the loser of Canada-Germany. They have proved resilient and canny so far, winning three out of their four previous games by one goal, including a 3-2 quarter-final shootout win over the U.S.
"It's a tough loss but we have to move forward," said assistant captain Jan Kovar. "We started with a tough game against Korea, but I think we played better with every game after that. The way the tournament went and the way we played, we're disappointed because we felt like we could go all the way. But Russia is a great team, so congratulations to them."
After a scoreless first period, Gusev opened the scoring at 7:47 of the second from the left faceoff circle, converting a cross-ice feed from Datsyuk past goalie Pavel Francouz. The Czechs challenged the play for goalie interference, claiming Kaprizov was the culprit. But video review showed the 20-year-old winger, who led the 2017 World Juniors in scoring, didn't make contact, and the goal stood.
It was the second goal of the tournament for Gusev, who is second in Olympic scoring with eight points behind Finland’s Eeli Tolvanen (nine points).
"Of course it was important to open the scoring, because it was a tense game and everyone was afraid of making a mistake," said Datsyuk.
At 8:14, the Russians struck with cobra-like speed to make it 2-0. Ivan Telegin raced down right wing and lifted a perfect backhand saucer pass over blueliner Adam Polasek’s stick to Gavrikrov. The 22-year-old SKA defenceman beat Francouz high to the stick side.
"On the goal, when I broke forward with Telegin, the main thing was that we got the goal," said Gavrikov. "Right now, it doesn't matter who puts the puck in the net. My legs took me there and, of course, you'd expect a dish like that from Ivan."
Kovalchuk, not always disciplined, threatened his team’s momentum when he promptly took a kneeing minor on Jan Kolar. After the Czechs hemmed in the OAR squad but couldn’t score with the man advantage, Kovalchuk rushed back on and slashed the stick out of Polasek’s hands. The man who sparked Russia to gold at the 2008 and 2009 Worlds returned to the sin bin – but again “Kovy” dodged a bullet.
Trailing by two was a bitter pill for the Czechs, who outshot their opponents 15-8 in the second period. And despite pressing valiantly in the final stanza, they could not solve Koshechkin, who has backstopped Metallurg Magnitogorsk to two KHL titles (2015, 2016). Kovalchuk added the empty-netter with 21 seconds left, tying him with Tolvanen and the U.S.'s Ryan Donato for the Olympic goals lead (five).
"The biggest part of tonight's win was our goalie, and our PK was outstanding," said Mikhail Grigorenko after his team killed off five minors in total. "The guys were blocking shots all over, working hard and pushing each other. It was great."
"We're still able to play for a medal, and that was our goal when we got here," said Czech defenceman Michal Jordan. "We're still in the tournament, and we have to get ready for the next game. It's big for us and we have to play our best game."
Russia’s last Olympic hockey medal was bronze in Salt Lake City 2002.
A three-time KHL Coach of the Year and Gagarin Cup champion, Znarok has had declining returns with the national team, but will reverse that trend in Korea. At the Worlds, the mustachioed 55-year-old bench boss earned gold in 2014, silver in 2015, and bronze in both 2016 and 2017. It could be time for him to usher in a new golden era in Russian hockey.