Russia-Slovakia Preview

BY foxsports • February 18, 2010

A popular pick to win hockey gold for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia didn't disappoint in its Olympic opener.

The same can't be said for Slovakia, which fell flat in its Vancouver debut despite getting some of its top players back from injuries.

Russia looks to build on a strong first game and continue its quest for gold Thursday night against a hobbled Slovakia team hoping to bounce back from an inauspicious start.

With some of the NHL's top talent in Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk joining many of the best players from its own Kontinental Hockey League, Russia appears to present a legitimate threat to Canada's hopes of winning the gold on home ice.

The team delivered on those high expectations in its first Olympic game Tuesday night, beating Latvia 8-2 behind two goals apiece from Ovechkin and Danis Zaripov.

"Everybody gives us the credit but now we have to put it on the ice," said forward Sergei Fedorov, who had two assists.

The 40-year-old Fedorov, who spent 19 years in the NHL before moving to the KHL this season, said Russia practiced only once before its Olympic opener. But the team found its rhythm early against Latvia, scoring twice in the first 8 minutes.

That was more than Slovakia mustered in its entire opener, a 3-1 loss to the rival Czech Republic on Wednesday night. Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa made surprise returns to the ice, but having two of its top offensive options back didn't pay off as Slovakia was routinely stopped at the net and frustrated by penalties.

"We had lots of good things tonight, but we got into penalty trouble and that made a difference," Hossa said. "It gave them too much momentum."

Hossa played despite a recent concussion and Gaborik played with a deep gash in his right thigh that he suffered last week.

"I wanted to play," said Gaborik, tied for fourth in the NHL with 35 goals. "Hopefully it's going to get better and better."

The New York Rangers star appeared to skate more freely as the game went on.

"Once you get out there and the painkillers kick in it feels better," Gaborik said.

While it was ultimately a disappointing defeat for Slovakia, the hobbled stars gave the team some reason for optimism. Hossa assisted on Gaborik's tying goal in the second period, and the duo combined for 11 shots on goal as the Slovaks outshot the Czechs 35-24.

It seems likely that Gaborik and Hossa will face Russia, which could mix up its rotation after evenly rolling groups of five skaters on power plays against Latvia.

"It was important that all players had their time to play so that they could warm up for the tournament," coach Vyacheslav Bykov said through a translator. "We allowed all the lines to play the power play. The next lines will be formed with a more certain goal in mind."

Russia will likely pull no punches against a Slovakia team it lost to in the preliminary round of the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. Gaborik scored two goals in the final 4 minutes to lift Slovakia to a 5-3 victory. That was one of several disappointing defeats for Russia, which fell far short of expectations with a fourth-place finish. Slovakia came in fifth.

Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Alex Kovalev each scored for Russia against Slovakia in Turin. Ovechkin has seven goals in nine games at the Olympics, while Datsyuk has two goals and 10 assists in 15 games. Kovalev is serving as a substitute in Vancouver.

Hossa has nine goals and eight assists in nine Olympic contests, and Gaborik has totaled four goals and four assists in seven games.

Russia's Evgeni Nabokov went 4-2-0 with a 1.34 goals-against average in his first Olympics in 2006 before making 18 saves in this year's opener. He'll match up against Jaroslav Halak, who made his Olympic debut Wednesday.

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