POPRAD, SLOVAKIA - APRIL 20: Team Russia players celebrate after Kirill Slepets #8 overtime winning goal against Slovakia to win by a final score of 3-2 during quarterfinal round action at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Russia wins, 3-2, but Slovak fans the real story
Slovakian president Andrej Kiska was among the throng of 4,496 spectators who witnessed a thrilling quarter-finals game, won in overtime by Russia, 3-2.
Kirill Slepets beat three Slovaks to a loose puck in front and fired a low shot to the corner, giving Russia a 3-2 overtime win against hosts Slovakia and earning a place in the semi-finals against Finland on Friday.
"We played a great game," Adam Ruzicka said. "We made a mistake, and we lost. It happens in hockey. But the crowd, the fans, are amazing. That's what makes us happy. This is something special. I don't know what else to say."
Despite the loss, the Slovakian players and fans were the real winners. The arena in Poprad was stuffed beyond capacity, and as they had done earlier against Finland and Canada, the Slovaks fell behind early and rallied to tie. Tonight, they also led, but in the end they fell a goal short.
"The stadium was electric," Russian coach Sergei Golubovich agreed. "The atmosphere was incredible. The fans helped Slovakia play well, for sure. This was a tough battle for us."
After the handshakes, the players circled the ice to acknowledge the crowd. Some were fighting back tears; some were crying; some were even smiling sadly at the contradiction of being crushed by the loss but overwhelmed by the support.
The noise continued for so long that all of the players not being interviewed came out of the dressing room and skated another lap. An encore, if you will. That happens at the opera every night, but not so often in hockey.
If you want to appreciate the Russian side--and sentiment aside, they won the game, fair and square--you want to start with number 19, Ivan Chekhovich. He is a special player and will be in the NHL one day, sooner rather than later.
Chekhovich scored both regulation goals for Russia, made one other sensational rush, and seemed to be at another level of skill than anyone else on ice.
Russia opened the scoring at 5:36 on a bit of sloppy defence from Slovakia. Andrei Svechnikov boldly split the defence coming in over the blue line, and as he took a shot he lost control of the puck. Unguarded, Chekhovich put the loose disc past Juraj Sklenar.
"I saw Svechnikov go through the middle and try to shoot, and I was in a good position to get the rebound and take a shot," Chekhovich said.
The Russians did a great job defensively all period, not allowing the Slovaks to penetrate or get any quality shots on Maxim Zhukov.
That changed in a big way during the second period. As if a switch went off, the Slovaks decided to get the puck deep, forecheck, and let the Russians do some of the work. The strategy paid off in spades.
Jozef Balej made a great steal of the puck from defenceman Mark Rubinchik behind the Russian goal. Balej got it to the front of the goal where two Slovaks were stationed unattended. Adam Liska put the puck on Adam Ruzicka's stick, and he tied the game at 11:35.
Soon after, Chekhovich made a sensational rush but was stopped by Sklenar in the crease. Two minutes later, Slovakia took the lead on another defensive breakdown by the Russians. This time they watched as Adam Liska carried the puck in around the Russian goal, failing to cover him as he whirled and passed behind him, to the front of the goal, where Milos Fafrak chipped the puck in.
"They started to play more offensively in the second period," Golubovich said. "We tried to counter-attack, but they had the better period."
Chekhovich got his second of the night at 1:14 of the third on a power play that carried over from the second. A rebound came right to him behind the play, and he snapped a quick shot, bulging the twine and silencing the crowd briefly as the score moved to 2-2.