International Ice Hockey Federation

Perfect for Russia

Perfect for Russia

The red machine continues to roll

Published 21.05.2014 00:14 GMT+3 | Author Andy Potts
Perfect for Russia
MINSK, BELARUS - MAY 20: Vitali Koval #1 of Belarus can't make the save on this play while Vladimir Denisov #7, Roman Graborenko #92 and Russia's Sergei Plotnikov #16 look on during preliminary round action at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Host nation Belarus put up some stubborn resistance as Yevgeni Malkin arrived in Minsk - but could not stop Sergei Plotnikov's match-winning display for Russia.

It took a while to warm up, but the most eagerly anticipated clash of the group stages of the World Championship finally delivered the expected excitement in a breathless third period that saw Russia hard pushed to withstand a brave Belarusian fightback.

Although Russia opened up a 2-0 lead in the first two periods, and seemed set for a routine victory, Belarus roared back in the final session despite a depleted line-up.

Vladimir Denisov, captain for the night in the absence of Alexei Kalyuzhny, made his day even more memorable by halving the arrears in the 46th minute, collecting Alexander Kitarov's pass and placing his wrist shot upstairs on Sergei Bobrovski.

That sparked chances at both ends: a scintilating Malkin rush ended up going wide before Sergei Kostitsyn went close at the other end. Then play switched right back down the ice for Danis Zaripov to put replacement goalie Kevin Lalande on red alert.

Russia then had to withstand a power play after Viktor Tikhonov was called for slashing and a packed house went into a frenzy as Andrei Kostitsyn and Andrei Stepanov tested Bobrovski.

Belarusian forward Geoff Platt paid tribute to Russia's goalie, but added that his team left it too late to really pressure the all-conquering Russian team.

"I can't say we really challenged Bobrovski until the last period," he said. "We didn't get many shots for two periods but he made some key stops in the third. He's a world-class goalie and that's what he's expected to do."

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Before the game the focus was on the arrival of Yevgeni Malkin in Russia's roster and the prospects of a battle between a confident host-nation and its hugely impressive neighbour.

But until Sergei Plotnikov took control of events just after midway there was little to really justify the hype. Belarus rested Mikhail Grabovski after he took a knock to the lower body against Latvia and also gave Kalyuzhny a breather to ease his on-going groin and back problems. The remaining players offered stubborn but unthreatening resistance to Russia's push for a seventh successive victory.

Plotnikov admitted the performance was not always up to the standards set earlier in the competition. "Both goalkeepers played really well but at times we were disorganised and didn't do so well, plus they were strong on defence," he said.

"But the chance to win and advance to the quarter-finals with seven wins in seven games was a motivating factor. We are proud and we want to win. That's why we're here."

With both teams comfortably assured of a quarter-final berth, there was little edge to the early exchanges until Plotnikov kick-started the action just after midway.

Russia had shown signs of shaking off its sluggish start and tightening the screws on Vitali Koval in the Belarusian goal, and on its fourth power play of the night Plotnikov was on hand to slide home from the slot after Vadim Shipachyov's pass from behind the net.

His Lokomotiv team-mate Yegor Yakovlev then hit the bar with a drive from the point before Plotnikov engineered a second goal. This time his willingness to hustle for the puck left Kirill Gotovets exposed and after stripping the defenceman of possession Plotnikov slung an inviting backhand pass across the face of goal for Shipachyov to convert.

That was almost the last action Koval faced: moments afterwards he was on the receiving end of a trademark Malkin rush, and while he managed to keep his goal intact the impact he suffered forced him to the bench. Kevin Lalande replaced him , leaving head coach Glen Hanlon pondering the state of his goaltending options with Andrei Mezin struggling with a groin. "We'll find two from somewhere," he said, adding with a smile "I can even play myself."

It was the first big sighting of Malkin, who lined up alongside Viktor Tikhonov and Nikolai Kulyomin on Russia's second line but eased his way into the game gradually - much like the rest of team Russia.

The first period was low-key, with the teams mustering a mere nine shots on goal between them. The large crowd was somewhat muted having thrilled to greater offensive intent in earlier games, and for long periods it was the Russian fans who were making more noise as their team's 'home' status became more than just theoretical.

Malkin did help to fashion one good chance early on, but his pass from the goal line was fired wide by Alexander Kutuzov, while Yevgeni Kuznetsov created the best moment of the opening stanza, attempting a trademark solo move which ended in a wraparound that slapped into Koval's pads.

"It was hard today to be honest," Malkin said afterwards. "The first period was especially tough but then it got a bit easier. I've got good partners and we created chances but it's a pity that I couldn't score. The puck just wouldn't go in for me. I'll look at some videos, analyse the game and hope it will go better next time."

But after the first intermission Russia stepped up its game, increasing the pressure incrementally even before Plotnikov's intervention set his team on the path to victory and a perfect record through the group phase.

However, head coach Oleg Znarok was not entirely happy after the game. "It's quite hard to motivate players for a game that doesn't mean anything in the competition," he said. "I saw before the game that the players were taking it a bit too easy. That's a lesson and we will learn from it."

Hanlon, despite the defeat, was happier. "I'm really really proud of our players. The whole country should be proud," he said. "That was a real gutsy, courageous performance from seven defencemen and 11 forwards. It's hard to play two games in two nights with all the emotions of last night, and I couldn't be more proud of my team."


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