Russia has finished the Olympic group stage with a 4-2 victory over the Czech Republic.

Changes to the line-up
Following the shoot-out defeat to Slovakia, Vyacheslav Bykov almost immediately announced that some changes were in the offing. The biggest surprise was that Ilya Bryzgalov was the first victim. The Russian HQ explained that the defense felt more comfortable playing in front of Evgeny Nabokov, even after Bryzgalov’s superb display in which he prevented Slovakia from claiming a regulation time win.

Another change was Evgeny Malkin coming in for Pavel Datsyuk, but this move was on the cards. Pavel is playing in Vancouver despite not being fully fit, so talk was of a powerful second line of Ovechkin - Malkin - Semin. The leading trio of Morozov - Zinovyev - Zaripov has been showing much more aggression. The coaches were hoping that the experienced Datsyuk would bring Ilya Kovalchuk to life but the scorer of the golden goal in the World Championship in Quebec, has been anonymous so far.

Illness prevented Sergey Fedorov from joining the training session the day before the match. He did come on against the Czechs, but it was clear the veteran was still far from 100%.

The tournament takes shape
The clash with the Czech Republic was important, not least from the psychological point of view after the failure against Slovakia. The Russians did need to win in regulation time, but a defeat would not have been fatal. An extra qualifying match could be considered a useful extra training exercise, although it would also mean playing the quarter-final just a day later.

Injury to Zinovyev
On top of all the other problems, Russia now face the possible loss of Sergey Zinovyev. It resulted from an incident in which an opponent came second best in a collision with Alexander Radulov, and somehow contrived to fall onto Zinovyev’s leg. Sergey needed help from the medic to make it to the bench and he then headed straight for the changing rooms, not even waiting for the break. He appeared on the bench for the third period but took no further part in the game.

Numerical advantage and disadvantage
It seems the Russians have at last lifted the powerplay curse, having successfully punished the Czechs for the dismissal of Jagomir Jagr with Evgeny Malkin opening the scoring. Alas, this was followed by a loss of discipline, and while playing at a double disadvantage Russia allowed Tomas Plekanec to level the score. And this was not the end of the unnecessary punishments. Sergey Fedorov was especially unlucky, even receiving a two minutes’ penalty for delaying the game. But to his credit, Fedorov put in a tremendous amount of work, and in the closing period took Zinovyev’s place in the “Kazan” line.

Ovechkin rattles Jagr
In the second period, with the teams playing at even strength, Victor Kozlov seized the moment and put Russia back in front. As with the move for the first goal, Alexander Ovechkin was again the creator.

The third goal against the Czechs was once again struck by Malkin. Although the scorecards will not mention Ovechkin’s role, it was he who started the move, getting the better of Jagomir Jagr with such agility that it took the Czech master an age to realize what happened to him. This was one of the great moments of recent times - possibly the best, considering the outcome.

After this, it was plain sailing. The Czechs went on the attack, but they knew that clawing back two goals was unlikely and realized it would be better to conserve their strength for the forthcoming qualifying match. True, Milan Michalek managed to liven things up by halving the deficit to 3-2, but with seconds remaining Datsyuk settled the nerves, and the game, by guiding the puck into an empty net.

And so the Russia team has overcome the first hurdle, but of course this is far from ‘mission accomplished’. For Russia, and indeed for all the teams, there will no longer be any place for mistakes. Now begins the real battle for Olympic gold. The next contest will be against the winners of the Canada - Germany clash, so the dream final, unfortunately, is once again impossible, and at least one of the tournament favorites will be left with nothing/

Alexei Shevchenko,

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