GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 25: Olympic Athletes from Russia players celebrating after a 4-3 gold medal game overtime win against Germany at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
First gold for team from Russia since 1992
Kirill Kaprizov's overtime goal gave the OAR team a thrilling 4-3 gold-medal win over underdog Germany. It's the first Russian Olympic gold since 1992.
Russian fans have eagerly awaited this moment ever since the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) team triumphed at the 1992 Albertville Olympics under coach Viktor Tikhonov.
On Sunday, the Olympic Athletes from Russia made their dreams come true -- in the most dramatic fashion imaginable, against one of the least likely opponents.
Kaprizov scored at 9:40 on the power play, one-timing a Nikita Gusev feed past German goalie Danny aus den Birken from the right faceoff circle and unleashing a wild red-and-white celebration. The goal came 29 seconds after Germany's Patrick Reimer was sent off for accidentally high-sticking Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk.
"Gus gave me a great pass, and I was just lucky to get on the end of it," said Kaprizov. "After that, I was just on auto-pilot. My first thought was to run. Anywhere, I didn't know!"
With the NHL opting out of PyeongChang, the Russians took full advantage of their ability to ice more top-tier KHLers than anyone else. They outscored opponents 27-9. This culmination provides relief and happiness after Russia’s crushing Olympic quarter-final losses to Canada in Vancouver 2010 and Finland in Sochi 2014.
Aus den Birken was heroic in his duel with Russian starter Vasili Koshechkin as the OAR team outshot Germany 30-25. Near the seven-minute mark of overtime, the EHC Munchen netminder did the splits to rob Olympic MVP Ilya Kovalchuk, who exploded through the German defence.
The young Russian KHL snipers shone, with four-point games for both CSKA Moscow's Kaprizov (1-3-4) and tournament scoring leader Gusev of SKA St. Petersburg (2-2-4). Vyacheslav Voinov also had a goal and an assist for the OAR team.
Datsyuk joined the IIHF’s Triple Gold Club with this victory. Head coach Oleg Znarok also continued his medal streak at IIHF tournaments. The 55-year-old won gold at the 2014 Worlds, silver at the 2015 Worlds, and bronze at the 2016 and 2017 Worlds. This is the biggest one yet.
"I learned a lot from Datsyuk at this tournament," said Kaprizov. "He can play anywhere on the ice. I’m thrilled that Pavel and Ilya Kovalchuk finally won their gold medals. I’m happy for everyone, but from them in particular because it’s their fifth Games. I’m only 20, and I still have a lot to strive for in my career."
Felix Schutz, Dominik Kahun and Jonas Muller replied for Germany, which gave the Russians all they could handle. In fact, coach Marco Sturm's team led 3-2 with less than a minute left in regulation.
"We called this Mission: Gold from Day One," said veteran Moritz Muller. "It's maybe a little nuts, but that's what we needed to do to get here. Obviously, it's right after the game so we're a little sad. We were 50 seconds away from winning gold, but it's been an amazing experience. We've come so close together as a group. We played to our full potential every game. For me, it was a little miracle. "
The Cinderella Germans' run to the gold medal game was as unexpected as the OAR team’s was predictable. The Germans mostly played the Russians on their preferred tight-checking terms -- but that all changed in the second half of the third period, with the score tied 1-1.
With 6:39 left, Gusev took his time lining up his short-side laser from the bottom of the left faceoff circle before putting it off aus den Birken's mask and in. It was a goal that Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews would be envious of. Russian fans at the packed Gangneung Hockey Centre went wild, anticipating this was the winner.
But not so fast! Just 10 seconds later, Kahun got loose in front and took Frank Mauer's backhanded centering pass from the goal line, lifting the puck past Koshechkin's glove.
With 3:16 remaining, Jonas Muller cruised in and scored from the hash marks through the goalie's legs. It was the 22-year-old defenceman's first goal of the tournament, and it looked like he'd written his name in the history books.
When Sergei Kalinin took a tripping minor at 17:49, the Russians were on life support. But after Znarok pulled his goalie for the extra attacker, Gusev got loose at the side of the German net and golfed a shorthanded backhander past aus den Birken's blocker to make it 3-3 with just 0:56 left. It was a perfect example of how high-end Russian skill can turn the tide in a heartbeat.
"We didn’t expect a game quite like that, but thank God it turned out the way it did," said Datsyuk. "With God’s help, it all worked out. When we were down 2-3 and Gusev had that shot, I think everyone’s heart stopped on the bench. But when the goal went in, we came back to life."
"We wanted to spread the power play and run out the clock, but Russia is a team that can score at any time," said Germany's David Wolf. "We had a couple of chances on the power play, but then we made a line change and the puck came into our end. We tried to freeze it, but they pulled the goalie, which was a good call, and they tied it."
It was a tough break for the Germans, who got further than they could have dreamed a month ago thanks to their hard work, poise, team spirit, and surprising offensive creativity.
For Germany, the historic nature of this silver medal cannot be overstated. The last German Olympic medal came in Innsbruck 1976 with the classic bronze-winning roster coached by Xavier Unsinn and headlined by scoring star Erich Kuhnhackl. Prior to that, their only other medal was bronze in 1932. So the German federation’s pre-Olympic decision to hand Sturm a contract extension through 2022 looks like a stroke of genius.
"The thing with Marco Sturm that is different is that he always wants to win every game," said Mortiz Muller. "It doesn't matter the nation we're playing. There were coaches before him who would say when we're playing Canada, 'C'mon guys, let's have a good night and play hard...' But if you're down after the first period with Sturmy, he gets mad -- it doesn't matter who we're playing. He put that spirit in us."
In modern IIHF history, the closest parallel to what Germany did is the Swiss silver-medal run at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Sweden.
"We didn't think we'd win silver maybe, but we believed we could come here and make a statement," said Wolf. "We have the ability to believe we can win, and once we did we got more confident when we played the big nations. That's what got us to the finals. Now we go home with a silver medal, and we can be proud of that."
Here in the early going, the Germans did a good job of keeping their red-and-white opponents on the perimeter with disciplined, structured defence. Yet the OAR team opened the scoring with a trademark lightning strike with just one second left in the first period.
Gusev snared the puck in the left faceoff circle and dished it to Voinov in the high slot. He hammered a one-timer high to the stick side, and the Russians celebrated the payoff of a period in which they outshot Germany 12-6.
The 28-year-old Voinov, who won two Stanley Cups with the L.A. Kings before leaving North America under a cloud in 2015 to star for SKA St. Petersburg, was Russia’s best blueliner in Korea.
Against the flow of play, the Germans tied it up at 9:32 of the second period. Koshechkin fumbled an onrushing Schutz’s bad-angle backhander from the goal line, pushing the puck into his own net with his blocker hand. There was a review to see if Patrick Hager, who went hard to the crease, kicked it in, but video revealed that it did not touch the German scoring leader.
"It was no surprise for us that the Germans played so well," said Voinov. "We watched how they played up to now. There were a few moments today when we didn’t play as well as we can, but even at the end we still believed. We kept going for the full 60 minutes."
This ranked up there with the most exciting Olympic finals of all time, and was only the second one ever decided in overtime. Sidney Crosby's golden goal in Vancouver at 7:40 of the extra frame against the Americans in 2010 was the first. Peter Forsberg famously scored in the shootout to lift Sweden over Canada at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer.
Other top nations, from Canada to Sweden to the United States, will decry the NHL’s decision not to let them ice their A-list talent. But history rolls on regardless. A few years ago, who could have imagined that a Russian team without Alexander Ovechkin or Yevgeni Malkin would be the first to claim Olympic gold in the 21st century? Yet now, the celebrations are loud and proud from St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea to Vladivostok on the Pacific.