Hockey

Rod Perry - Sunday Feb. 16, 2014 10:00 ET

Jan Laco brilliant in Slovakia's shootout loss to Russia

Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Radulov score in shootout

Jan Laco makes a stop for Slovakia vs. Russia
Slovakian goalie Jan Laco was brilliant against Russia on Sunday. (Mark Blinch/Pool/Getty Images)
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Jan Laco did everything he could.

The unheralded Slovakian goaltender turned aside everything he saw. A Kontintenal Hockey League backup, he looked fearless in the face of the Russians’ high-powered offence.

But his teammates couldn’t solve Russian counterpart Semyon Varlamov.

Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk scored the only shootout goals after a scoreless deadlock, Varlamov provided 27 saves and Team Russia edged Slovakia 1-0 in Group A action on Sunday in the 2014 Sochi Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome.

"That's every game here. It's very intense," Kovalchuk said. "Even if you play against Slovenia or the USA, or today against Slovakia, it doesn't matter. We couldn't find a way how to score, but we found a way to win." 

With one win, one overtime win and one overtime loss in the preliminary round, Russia must play a qualifying elimination game to reach the quarter-finals, after failing to earn one of the four automatic berths. The Russians finished fifth and will face off with Norway Tuesday.

Slovakia (0-3) finished last in its group with one point.

Laco, getting the call in place of star St. Louis Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak, was brilliant in stopping 36 Russian shots – the only blemishes being in the shootout.

Alex Ovechkin thought he had an open net to end the game in overtime, but the Capitals forward was blocked on a spectacular sprawling stop by Slovakian defender Andrej Meszaros, who came to the aid of the 32-year-old Slovakian goalie.

"It mattered to us," Meszaros said. "We wanted to prove to ourselves we could play better hockey than we showed in the first two games. I think we showed everybody that we can play with anybody."

Momentum shift

The home side re-established its momentum in the third period by outshooting the Slovaks 15-2 and drawing four straight penalties, failing to convert on any of them.

The Russians, fresh off a thrilling 3-2 shootout loss to the Americans, appeared to have finally solved Laco in the third on a power play, off a deflected point shot by Yevgeni Medvedev. The puck beat the Slovakian netminder, but caromed off the crossbar and post to stay out of the net.

The early half of the second period featured a defensive battle, with both sides smothering one another and not allowing many chances. Russia couldn’t convert on either of its power-play opportunities of the frame, but the pace picked up significantly in the latter half of the period.

Laco looked calm as can be in fending off the Russian attack. His glove side was seemingly unbeatable at times and he was able to spot the puck through traffic to make some difficult stops.

One of his best came early in the second period on Pittsburgh Penguins sniper Evgeni Malkin, who had a great chance taken away by Laco’s acrobatics.

Not many goalies can say this, but Laco seemed to have Malkin’s number in this tilt. Known for having one of the quickest snap shots in the NHL, Malkin recovered a loose puck late in the period, turned and fired. Laco was quicker. He calmly turned aside the chance to keep things scoreless.

But Varlamov was not to be outdone. He was lightning fast and sharp in denying chance after chance by the Slovaks.

The Russians had a scare involving one of their top snipers Ilya Kovalchuk. At 9:17 of the second period, the former New Jersey Devil got tangled up with Richard Panik, went down awkwardly and appeared to be favouring his leg or ankle. He left the game but would later return.

Slovakia lost the bronze-medal match to Finland in 2010 while the Russians finished a disappointing sixth. Russia is trying to duplicate what Canada was able to do four years ago in winning Olympic gold on home soil.

-- With files from The Associated Press

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