When I walked in the arena, I was expecting a blowout. Not the Canadians and the Swiss. Sadly, I watched that one on CTV's streaming service. By the time I was heading into the Russia-Slovakia game I had already had time to absorb and dissect the mini-upset. Little chance of winning the group stage now, need a lot of help. As we cleared security, I said to my buddy "Well, if Slovakia can get to OT tonight, we'll still have a chance". He laughed. We'd seen the Slovaks play the night before against the Czechs. They'd played well in that game, probably deserving better than the 3-1 loss they got, but they'd struggled against the size and skill of Jagr and we were expecting worse against Ovechkin, Malkin, and the rest of the new Big Red Machine.
We headed through the gate towards our seats. This was the 5th game I'd attended this week and the second time I'd sat in the lower bowl. The night before I was between the TSN transformer stage and the media section in the 11th row. For this game, we were in the exact opposite corner. It's easier to analyze the game and watch the play develop from higher up in the 300s, but nothing can really match the visceral experience of being closer to the action. Especially at the Olympics, as the lower bowl is populated mostly by real fans who were dedicated (and wealthy) enough to spend the extra cash, rather than suits and business clients with corporate freebies.
As we took our seats, I was suprised how many Canadians were wearing Russian gear. Alexander Ovechkin is an amazing player, and his charisma and the sheer joy he takes in the game make him incredibly likeable, but this is international competition and I can't imagine actively cheering for Russia. The crowd was full of red, white, and blue flags, some Russian and some Slovakian. Two Russians at the far end of the rink were waving gigantic flags on long poles that I'm not entirely sure how they managed to carry through the crowds on the way in. A Canadian fan was wearing giant foam versions of the Olympic mittens and I was thankful I was not sitting behind her.
The Russians were warming up in our end, and that's a fun thing to watch. You see oddly spectacular things, like Ovechkin juggling the puck on his stick as he skates around, or Federov getting stopped on a deke and then casually pivoting as he goes past the net, tapping in the rebound while it's still 4 feet off the ice. For the second game in a row, Malkin and Ovechkin seemed to be competing to see who could stay out longer. Ovechkin won, and flipped a few pucks to the appreciative crowd as he left the ice.
It was at this point a strange man behind me offered me part of his pretzel. I declined.
As the game began, there were empty seats to my left and in front of me. With the hectic schedule of the games, I assumed that they belonged to fans who were still rushing in from other events. While that turned out to be true for the ones beside me, the ones in front belonged to 4 obnoxious guys who had simply decided to have a few more drinks before getting to the game. Overall, I'd say that the crowd was pro-Slovakia, unless Alex Ovechkin had the puck. Through the first period, every time he took it up the wing the whole crowd seemed to lean forward in anticipation. The largest cheer in that frame went to a hit he put on an unfortunate Slovak along the boards. As the period went on, I became quite impressed by the Slovakian team. The guys who had struggled the night before - particularly Andrej Meszaros and Stumpel - had picked up their games for this one. Demitra was flying. The Slovaks managed to thwart the Russian attack effectively at the blue line, with Lubomir Visnovsky in particular doing a great job poking the puck off the attacker's stick.
As the period closed tied at 0, we bemoaned the age of the Slovaks. Guys like Richard Zednik simply didn't look to have quite enough left to generate really good scoring chances from their possession. Bryzgalov had stopped 10 shots, but many of them had been simple wristers into his crest with no rebound. As has been stated here and elsewhere over this last little while, the Slovaks finally have a goalie, but the guys up front are too far past their prime to take advantage of it. For many of these guys, this is their last shot and the know it. While they were great in the first, that couldn't last all game. I've watched Demitra for the Canucks this year. That guy certainly can't play like this for an entire game, can he? Our entire section seemed to agree that as the game wore on the Russian skill and young legs would likely take over.
As the second began, it seemed like exactly that was happening. The Russians had more possession, seemed to gain the zone more easily, looked more dangerous. Shorthanded, Hossa dashed down the ice with Demitra and slid the puck over, but Bryzgalov robbed him. Moments later, shortly after that penalty ended, Morozov ripped one top corner, and the Slovakians around us slumped. The Russians had a brilliant chance to pad their lead later in the period when Lubo abandoned his side of the net, leaving Maxim Afinogenov wide open when Evgeni Malkin threaded the puck through, but Halak bailed him out. The Russians poured the shots on, outshooting the Slovaks 16-5 for the period, but at the intermission there was optimism. Slovakia was hanging around and the longer it went without the Russians padding the league, the more we felt like Slovakia could actually pull this off.
When the 3rd began, the Slovaks got a brilliant chance to tie it up. A long 5 on 3 early seemed perfect. Unfortunately, like the Germans against the Swedes, the underdog was unable to capitalize on the chance. My friend and I were at that game as well, and I was starting to think this one might follow a similar script. Scrappy underdog staying in it, but unable to score. The Slovaks did not think much of that possibility. As the period went on they thwarted the Russian attack at every turn and skated up ice in waves. Finally, Marian Hossa got a chance for a one-timer, wide open in the high slot and buried it. Tie game. A beautiful feed from Demitra, who looked more like the unsung hero of the turn of the century Blues than the shadow of himself that has been skating around in a Canucks jersey the last couple years. As the clock ticked towards overtime, the Slovaks got a fantastic opportunity to tie the game when Ilya Bryzgalov thought he covered the puck when it was sitting at the side of the net, but they could not bang one in. Nether could the Russians though, so off to overtime. At this point the Canadian fan in me is satisfied. At worst, even terms with Russia in points and the edge in goal differential. But the Slovaks would not let it end that way.
The shootout. Stumpel first for Slovakia, a surprise. But he makes it look easy with a beautiful deke to put the Slovaks up 1-0. The next 2 miss, and the crowd is on its feet for Ovechkin. Halak gets a piece of it with his pad, but it's not enough and the puck trickles in. 1-1. Hossa is stopped and a nervous moment while Pavel Datsyuk shoots for the win. But the puck rolls away from him without a shot and we're into extra shooters. Tense moments as Ovechkin misses twice, but then Pavol Demitra is up. He was poke checked his first attempt, but now a chance for redemption. He rolls far out to the right and cuts to the net on his forehand. As he comes across the net, Bryzgalov slides wtih him, but he aims back to the other post. Softly, he flips it past Bryzgalov. The crowd explodes. The Slovakian players pour off the bench, and Demitra slides backwards towards centre, arms outstretched, soaking in the moment. It's a hell of a thing to watch a man realize he's not done yet. Usually it goes the other way. And it still probably will for Demitra. Injuries have slowed him and he can't be the impact player every day like he once was. But for today he's the hero. We stand and cheer the teams as they shake hands, then disperse into an unseasonably beautiful Vancouver night.