Canadians are fond of hits that alter the outcome of a game, and it’s a measure of how far hockey has evolved that today’s crushing blow was administered by a Russian—not some strapping farm boy from Saskatchewan.
“Turning point” seems an inadequate phrase for the impact of Alexander Ovechkin’s mid-ice bone-cruncher on Jaromir Jagr early in the third period, though you’d never know it from the man who administered it.
“It was just one moment [in the game],” said Ovechkin who also collected a pair of assists. “If I have a chance to hit someone, it doesn’t matter who it is.”
Really? Because everyone else who watched it instantly understood that this wasn’t just some late-game bump. With the score 2-1 for Russia, the Czechs had every chance of tying the game, which would have forced Russia to play a qualifier just to get into the playoff round. Instead, they’ll now advance directly the quarterfinal.
What’s more, Jagr is the Czechs’ most recognizable star—a big guy once known for shaking off the worst an opponent could throw at him. This, it seems, was worse than the worst.
It happened at 1:49 of the third: having gained some momentum through the neutral zone Jagr found himself in the trolley tracks, taking Ovechkin’s shoulder on the side of the head and landing on his backside. Russian defenceman Fedor Tyutin gathered up the loose puck, pushing it ahead to Alexander Semin, who in turn set Evgeni Malkin for the one-timer.
The goal gave the Russians a 3-1 lead and more importantly some edge in a game they looked entirely capable of losing. They’d been outshot in the second and had begun taking silly penalties, while the Czech’s took a disciplined if overly patient approach to their long-time rivals.
Instead, they finished with the W, and a 31-25 edge in shots.
“Oh, this was a big hit,” smiled Russian defenceman Anton Volchenkov to reporters afterward. “We have to play physical and after a big hit you have to score goals. We did, and it was very good.”
Even the Czech players had to admit the ice tilted at that point, noting that the goal turned out to be the winner. Milan Michalek, who drew his team within a goal by scoring with a little over five minutes left. “It put us down 3-1 and it’s pretty hard to play against Russia when you’re down two goals,” he said. “We came close to tying it, but in the end we got beat.”
Jagr, for his part, said he cared about the check less than the turnover that resulted in the goal: “It was my mistake. I made a bad decision.”
The Czechs had stayed within a goal for much the game, having spotted Russia one—also by Malkin—at 15:13 of the first. Tomas Plekanec drew them even with 54 seconds left in the period, but a goal by Viktor Kozlov restored the Russians’ lead.
The Ovechkin hit stood out in a match that was otherwise physically tame, considering the depth of the rivalry between the two sides. But like Ovechkin, Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov downplayed its importance.
“If I have to comment on every move by Ovechkin,” he said dryly. “It’s going to take until the next game. [Hitting] is part of his style.”