The excitement at Bolshoy Ice Dome and Shayba Arena picked up Thursday when the Canada, Russia, United States and Finland men’s hockey teams began their gold medal quests at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
After a first-period scare in which Finland trailed twice, its offense exploded with six goals in the final 41 minutes to secure an 8-4 victory over Austria in a game that highlighted the lack of experience and defensive skill on the Finnish blue line.
The U.S. asserted itself as the gold medal favorite with a 7-1 win over a talented Slovakia team. American goalie Jonathan Quick made 22 saves on 23 shots, and the Max Pacioretty-Paul Stastny-T.J. Oshie line combined for two goals and three assists in a dominating offensive performance.
Russia quickly gave the home fans reason to cheer with two goals — one from Alexander Ovechkin and the other by Evgeni Malkin — in the first four minutes of an eventual 5-2 win. Slovenia made it interesting with two second-period goals to trim the deficit to 3-2, but Russian goalie Semyon Varlamov shut the door in the final 20 minutes.
Canada began its gold medal defense with a lackluster first period against Norway. The Canadians finally got on the board when Shea Weber scored on a shot from the left point 6:20 into the second period, and Patrice Bergeron tallied two assists in a 3-1 win.
Finland vs. Austria
After letting Finland tie the score at 2, Austria surrendered two goals in eight seconds during the final minute of the first period and gave all the momentum to the Finns. Jarkko A. Immonen scored on a rebound for Finland’s fourth goal, which deflated the Austrians’ confidence.
United States vs. Slovakia
The Americans led 2-1, then broke the game open when Oshie won back possession of the puck at the blue line, drove to the net hard and fed a slick pass to Pacioretty. The Montreal Canadiens winger couldn’t beat Czech goaltender Jaroslav Halak, but Stastny converted on the rebound with an empty net to increase Team USA’s advantage to 3-1 as the rout began.
Russia vs. Slovenia
Slovenia made the score 3-2 with two second-period goals from Ziga Jeglic, but the Russians thwarted the comeback when young winger Valeri Nichushkin scored a brilliant goal four minutes into the third period.
Canada vs. Norway
With five minutes left in the second period, Bergeron flew down the right side of the ice with speed as he entered the attacking zone and made a fantastic pass to Benn for Canada’s second goal. With a 2-0 lead, the Canadians finally could relax after a scoreless opening 20 minutes.
Most Disappointing Players
Jaroslav Halak, Goalie, Slovakia
The Czech netminder was fantastic four years ago in Vancouver when his team finished fourth, but he was awful Thursday against the U.S. with 20 saves on 25 shots. He was replaced by Peter Budaj in the second period after Stastny scored his second goal of the game to give Team USA a 5-1 lead. The Slovakian defensemen didn’t give Halak a ton of help with a disappointing performance, but he didn’t instill much confidence in his teammates.
Thomas Vanek, Winger, Austria
Vanek picked up an assist on Thomas Hundertpfund’s goal that gave Austria a 2-1 lead over Finland in the first period, but the New York Islanders winger was very quiet for the remaining 50 minutes. He finished a minus-one and tallied only one shot on goal, which is disappointing when you consider how many Grade A scoring chances the Finnish defensemen gave up because of turnovers and breakdowns. Vanek needs to create more scoring chances for Austria to have any chance of reaching the quarterfinals.
Updated Preliminary Round Standings
|1||USA||1||1||0||0||0||7 : 1||3|
|2||RUS||1||1||0||0||0||5 : 2||3|
|3||SLO||1||0||0||0||1||2 : 5||0|
|4||SVK||1||0||0||0||1||1 : 7||0|
|1||FIN||1||1||0||0||0||8 : 4||3|
|2||CAN||1||1||0||0||0||3 : 1||3|
|3||NOR||1||0||0||0||1||1 : 3||0|
|4||AUT||1||0||0||0||1||4 : 8||0|
|1||SWE||1||1||0||0||0||4 : 2||3|
|2||SUI||1||1||0||0||0||1 : 0||3|
|3||LAT||1||0||0||0||1||0 : 1||0|
|4||CZE||1||0||0||0||1||2 : 4||0|
Friday’s schedule features four games. The Czech Republic and Latvia square off at 3 a.m., with both nations looking for their first win in Sochi. Sweden and Switzerland will battle at 7:30 a.m., with the winner taking the lead in Group C. At noon, Canada will take on Austria, and Finland will play Norway.