Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014 | 10:40 a.m.
SOCHI, Russia — With miserable memories of T.J. Oshie still fresh in their minds, the Russians were right back in another shootout.
An unknown Slovak goalie had blanked their powerful offense for 65 minutes, and Russia was one Oshie-esque moment away from a second straight Olympic loss.
Although Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov were hobbled, they wouldn't let it happen.
Semyon Varlamov stopped 27 shots, Radulov and Kovalchuk scored in the shootout, and Russia beat Slovakia 1-0 on Sunday, bouncing back from that shootout loss to the U.S. one day earlier.
After Varlamov stopped both Slovak attempts in the shootout, Kovalchuk beat Jan Laco to seal the Russians' second win in the preliminary round. Kovalchuk, who missed the final minutes of the second period with a right leg injury, kissed his index finger as he skated back to his teammates through deafening cheers.
"That's every game here. It's very intense," Kovalchuk said. "Even if you play against Slovenia or the USA, or today against Slovakia, it doesn't matter. We couldn't find a way how to score, but we found a way to win."
Kovalchuk didn't appear to steal any tactics from Oshie, whose four shootout goals turned him into the hero of the preliminary round. After Radulov beat Laco with a diabolical top-shelf backhand, Kovalchuk deked Laco to the ice and beat him easily to the stick side.
A day after the Russians' 3-2 shootout loss to the unbeaten U.S. team, they barely emerged from a tense, defense-dominated game with Slovakia, which lost its first two games in Sochi in embarrassing fashion. Another boisterous sellout crowd at Bolshoy Ice Dome grew increasingly nervous as the deadlock stretched deep into the third period, but the Russian stars delivered — barely.
"Yesterday's game definitely had an effect, because we spent a lot of energy and emotions," Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said through a translator. "Guys found it difficult to play today, but I must say Slovakia was very hard to play against."
With one win, one overtime win and one overtime loss in the preliminary round, Russia probably must play a qualifying elimination game to reach the quarterfinals, likely failing to earn one of the four automatic berths. The Russians will know for sure after Canada's late game against Finland.
But perhaps the Russians shouldn't be worried: After all, Canada was forced to play a qualifying game in its home Olympics four years ago, eventually rolling through four elimination games in Vancouver to win gold.
Russia also got a stellar game from Varlamov, who started the opener, but sat behind Sergei Bobrovsky for the loss to the U.S. Varlamov stopped Milan Bartovic twice on a breakaway chance late in the second period, and Slovakia's shootout attempts from Michal Handzus and Tomas Tatar went nowhere against the Colorado goalie.
"It does not matter if we will have to play an extra match," Varlamov said. "The end result is that we will have to play against a good team eventually."
The result was practically welcomed by the winless Slovaks, who have struggled in Sochi. They fell 7-1 to the Americans before allowing tiny Slovenia to record its first Olympic victory.
Laco was a surprise starter in place of his winless team's two NHL goalies, and the Kontinental Hockey League backup nearly stole a win over the powerful Russian offense by making 36 saves.
"I really thought we had good bounce-back after yesterday," Slovak captain Zdeno Chara said. "We just have to build on that and get ready for our next opponent. You always have a chance in this tournament no matter what you do in your first games. You can still move along if you win that do-or-die game. We have to get ready for that."
The Russians had no time to stew over their narrow loss to the Americans — or that disputed call on a disallowed Russian goal in that game. Slovakia immediately mired the Russians' beautiful offensive game in a tight-checking positional contest that magnified every scoring chance and resulted in several injuries.
Russia's desperation increased in the third period, outshooting Slovakia 15-2 and barely missing on numerous scoring chances. Laco turned them all away, and defenseman Andrej Meszaros saved the game early in overtime by blocking a rebound shot by Alex Ovechkin, who hasn't scored a goal since the opening minutes of Russia's first game.
"It mattered to us," Meszaros said. "We wanted to prove to ourselves we could play better hockey than we showed in the first two games. I think we showed everybody that we can play with anybody."