By Dan Burns
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) – After a stunning opening loss to Slovakia, Kiril Kaprizov scored a hat-trick as the Olympic Athletes from Russia stormed back on Friday to crush Slovenia 8-2 and set up a key group game against the United States in the men’s Olympic ice hockey tournament.
The Russians, the strongest team on paper and led by former NHL all stars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, looked set to take the Games by storm when they netted two early goals against the Slovaks.
But the Big Red Machine’s motor ran silent for the next 74 minutes as they lost 3-2 to Slovakia and they started slowly against the Slovenians.
“We were a little nervous. We have a lot of guys their time in the Olympics, and we were trying to do too much,” said Kovalchuk, who is playing in his fifth Olympics.
The Russians got back on track late in the first period with two goals within 22 seconds, the first from Sergei Mozyakin on a powerplay and the second from Kovalchuk who buried a shot from the point unassisted.
The floodgates opened in the second period as the Russians scored four times through Alexander Barabanov, Ilya Kablukov, Kaprizov and Kovalchuk, who also had an assist on the Kablukov goal.
Kovalchuk carried the puck into the Slovenia zone, threaded through two defenders and looped behind their goal before feeding Kablukov in front to knock it home.
Kaprizov completed his hat-trick with two third-period goals.
“First game we played a good first five minutes, today we played good all 60,” Kovalchuk said. “That was the difference.”
Captain Jan Mursak scored the first goal for the Slovenians, who came from two goals down in the third period to beat the United States in overtime on Wednesday. Ziga Pance scored their second with under a minute left.
The Russian’s lopsided win set up a pivotal game on Saturday against the Americans in Group B, where all four teams have a win and a loss each.
The U.S. sit top of the standings with four points because their defeat by Slovenia came in overtime, and the Russians are third.
If the Americans win, they will top the group with seven points and if they lose they could drop to third.
With a win, the Russians would finish first or second, depending on the outcome of the Slovenia v Slovakia game set for the same time. If they lose, they could drop to fourth.
(Reporting by Dan Burns, editing by Ed Osmond)