Commentary

Tense moments for Russia in opener

Upstart Slovenians provide tougher test than anticipated in Olympic debut

Updated: February 13, 2014, 1:06 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

SOCHI, Russia -- Leave it to a man of few words to describe exactly what the entire building felt like with his powerhouse team up just a goal over a hockey minnow.

"Tension, warning," Team Russia captain Pavel Datsyuk said.

To be precise, Datsyuk was responding to a question about how his team was feeling on the bench, up just 3-2 to open the third period Thursday over a Slovenia team that, on paper, the Russians should have clobbered.

But with an enthusiastic, flag-waving crowd at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, Dallas Stars rookie winger Valeri Nichushkin scored on an electrifying rush 3:59 into the final period, and Anton Belov's blast at 7:53 completely eased the "tension," allowing Russia to escape with a nervy 5-2 victory to open its gold-medal quest.

If you're looking for the Russian highlight Thursday, it might very well have been the fans, who were late arriving at this beautiful facility, but made up for it with a frenetic show of support throughout the game.

[+] EnlargePavel Datsyuk
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesCaptain Pavel Datsyuk, still a bit hobbled, credited Russian fans for lifting his team.
Think of the way a Brazilian soccer crowd raises its decibel level in calculated fashion as the ball is moved up the field. That's how it felt when Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin or Ilya Kovalchuk flew up the ice with the puck. You could feel the sense of anticipation rise.

"Unbelievable," Datsyuk said of the atmosphere. "I would like to say thank you to our fans, they helped us. We need it. They love hockey."

It was Ovechkin (who else?) who got the party started just 77 seconds into the game, his wicked wrist shot finding the top corner. Then Malkin channeled Pavel Bure and rocketed in alone to make it 2-0 at 3:54, giving the impression the game would be a complete walkover.

But then something funny happened: Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar and his tiny hockey nation made it a game.

When Ziga Jeglic scored to cut the lead to 2-1 just 1:43 into the second period, it gave Slovenia some jump. It also put a stunned Russian team on its heels for much of the period. Kovalchuk's power-play marker at 17:48 was quickly answered by another from the unheralded German Leaguer Jeglic at 18:52.

"It was a great feeling," said Jeglic, whose two goals were the first in Slovenia's Olympic hockey history.

A one-goal game through 40 minutes between Russia and Slovenia? Does anyone believe in Slovenian miracles?

"I think all in all we've got to be very proud with our effort and very proud with this team," Kopitar would say afterward, adding that his team perhaps got off to a slow start because it was "in awe" of the star-studded Russian powerhouse before settling down.

"I think after that we kind of saw that we can play with them, or play pretty good against them, you know, we started skating a lot more than we did at the start," he said. "I guess we won the second period, so that's a positive for sure."

Overall, it was a tepid start for a Russian team under tremendous pressure to win its first Olympic gold since 1992 and its first best-on-best hockey title since the 1981 Canada Cup.

"The team had a couple of mistakes, but I think the pressure and the [nerves] that we have before the game, that was the result," Ovechkin said. "I'm pretty sure the next game is going to be much better for us."

Ah, yes, the next game. That would be against Team USA, impressive 7-1 winners Thursday over Slovakia. That matchup here Saturday will rock the house.

Russia is hoping Datsyuk will be able to continue his recovery the next few days. He at times appeared to be skating gingerly, not at full strength in his stride as he fights through a suspected knee injury.

"Pavel is having a difficult time, still," Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov (aka "Coach Bil") said.

On the whole, Russia dominated in spurts but lacked cohesiveness at times, perhaps a sign of a team trying to blend KHLers with NHLers.

"I can't say it was a top-notch performance, but it wasn't bad," said Coach Bil, later adding that "there are a few things that need to be ironed out before the next game."

Perhaps, but there weren't any long faces leaving Bolshoy Ice Dome on Thursday evening. Fans were singing, arm-in-arm, as the host country began a trek everyone in Russia hopes will end in dream-like fashion with a gold medal.

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