Russia’s second game of the World Championships was attended by even fewer spectators than the first against Latvia. Apparently, Russians are only now beginning to pack their bags for the May holidays, having decided to take in only the crunch matches of the group, against the Swedes and the Czechs. The Norwegian fans were also conspicuous by their absence, and there was no obvious reason why so many would shirk the comparatively short trip over the border to Stockholm.
Team Russia, hoping to hit the ground running, chose to begin the game against Norway with the same faces which finished the opener against Latvia, while the Norwegians made one significant change: teenage goaltender Lars Volden coming in to replace Dinamo Minsk’s Lars Haugen, who had put in a superb performance against the Swedes.
Having started in an imposing mood, keeping the Norwegians trapped in their own zone for the opening minutes, the Russians began to relax their stranglehold and were lucky that Ken-Andre Olimb spurned a decent chance to put Norway ahead. As the period progressed, however, Russia upped the tempo and soon most of the dangerous moments were around the Scandinavians’ net. Zherdev, Shirokov and Svitov all had chances to open the scoring while Malkin was a constant menace from behind the goal. Russia’s superiority was illustrated by for the period stats: 14 shots to Norway’s 5, and there were ten or so more which sailed past the target.
In the starkest possible contrast to the first period, the second 20 minutes proved to be far more entertaining and eventful than one would think possible from a favorites vs. outsiders encounter. From the very start of the period Russia threw caution to the wind and commenced a bombardment of the Norwegian goal. The defense cracked on 1:21 in a power play when Pavel Datsyuk whipped in a vicious shot high over the goalie’s shoulder and into the top corner. The puck rebounded at such speed that the referee, while signaling a goal, nonetheless appealed to the video goal judge for confirmation. A few minutes later Patrick Thoresen’s sending off was ruthlessly punished by his old SKA team mate Denis Denisov with a powerful and accurate finish from the blue line.
As the game passed the halfway stage the intrigue intensified. Nikitin followed Perezhogin into the penalty box, handing Svitov, Medvedev, Denisov, and Semyon Varlamov the unenviable task of holding the fort for 1 minute 13 seconds against a full strength Norway. The task was beyond them, and Morten Ask’s slapshot halved the deficit.
Hardly had Nikita Nikitin’s front skate returned to the ice when Per-Age Skroder tapped in a rebound. The goal, however, was ruled out, since the referee had spotted Skroder’s faint nudge on Semyon Varlamov while the forward was in the crease. The decision seemed a correct one but the whistle was certainly late, and this incensed the Norwegians in the crowd. Stung by the perceived injustice, the 1,000 or so jeered the officials with such collective passion that it sounded more like 20,000, and they continued to voice their outrage for the remainder of the match.
“I feel really bad after this game,” Norway head coach Roy Johansen admitted with a wry smile after the game. “Yes, we lost to a stronger team, but we were robbed of a good goal and that was a body blow to the players.”
Norway’s pain increased within two minutes. Evgeny Malkin, encircled by a guard of Norwegians, squeezed a pass through to Nikolai Kulyomin and the Toronto man restored Russia’s two-goal margin. Norway forward Marius Holtet pleaded with the referee to rule the goal out, claiming another illegal challenge on the goalie, but his protests were waved away.
To their credit, the Norwegians refused to give up, and a Marius Holtet goal in power play brought them back in contention.
“In the second period we gave away some unnecessary penalties and that disrupted our game a little. I think the players relaxed a bit at 2:0,” - Russia’s head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said after the game.
In the first minute of the third period Alexander Perezhogin received a pass from Evgeny Malkin and coolly tapped in the game’s sixth and final goal.
Norwegian heads refused to drop even after allowing a fourth. For the remainder of the game they kept pouring forward and more than once managed to trouble Semyon Varlamov, even hitting the post during one such raid. The encounter was getting ever more physical and frantic, and Russia reacted by switching to a counter-attacking game. The tactic presented Svitov, Datsyuk, Perezhogin and Shirokov with excellent chances to add to Russia’s total, but none of them could beat the keeper.
“I don’t agree that it was like a practice,” Dmitry Kalinin gave his summary of the game. “We were lucky in that we scored first; that helped us a lot. I have to say that the Norwegians have a very good team. I particularly remember the defenseman (Jonas Holos) who had so many shots at our goal. Of course, after the “no-goal” call the Norwegians started playing a bit rough, but there was still nothing dirty about their game.”
Marat Safin, in Stockholm, special to khl.ru