Sweaty and spent, members of the team with the awkward name Olympic Athletes From Russia gathered to finish their mission.
Dazzling young forward Kirill Kaprizov’s power-play goal nine minutes and 40 seconds into sudden-death play had given them a 4-3 victory over upstart Germany and had transformed them into Olympic hockey champions for the first time since they were known as the Unified team in 1992, but there was a job still to be done, a promise to keep.
Russia had been banned from the Pyeongchang Games by the International Olympic Committee as punishment for its state-sponsored doping programs, but individual athletes were allowed to compete here as neutral athletes after their doping histories were reviewed.
The Russian flag wasn’t depicted on the gear of athletes who participated in individual or team sports and the country’s anthem was replaced by the Olympic anthem for the few who won gold.
That Olympic hymn played on the sound system at Gangneung Hockey Centre on Sunday evening after the Russians saved their tournament by tying the game with 55.5 seconds left in the third period and prevailed on Kaprizov’s wicked shot from the right circle.
The players ignored the hymn. Standing with their arms around each other, they sang the Russian anthem. It was a violation of the IOC’s sanctions against their country. At that moment, they didn’t care.
“It means a lot,” said Ilya Kovalchuk, a former NHL standout who plays for Saint Petersburg of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. “It feels good. We knew that we would do it if we win.”
They became the favorites as soon as it became clear the NHL would not allow its players to represent their homelands here. The KHL, as Kovalchuk pointed out, is the second-best hockey league in the world, and every player on his team came from the KHL, nearly all from Saint Petersburg or CSKA Moscow.
Kaprizov, a Minnesota Wild prospect, Kovalchuk, former Kings defenseman Slava Voynov — who was voted the tournament’s top defenseman — former Tampa Bay forward Nikita Gusev and former Detroit Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk gave them a strong backbone of players who were familiar with an established system. The United States, Sweden, Finland and others were forced to scour second- and third-tier leagues around the world and try to make a whole out of a bunch of jumbled parts.
For most, that was a recipe for failure. Germany, seeded 10th here, was an exception. “What happened here,” forward Moritz Muller said, “was a little miracle.”
Under the guidance of Coach Marco Sturm, they gained strength after they’d lost their first two games and mowed down Sweden and Canada to reach Sunday’s final. They were within a minute of pulling off a huge upset. They might have been the happiest silver medalists ever to stand on Olympic ice.
“After we lost the game, we were really disappointed, but more and more, we’re going to realize we lost against the Russian team in the gold medal game of the Olympics and I think we can be proud of ourselves,” forward Marcel Goc said.
Voynov, who was suspended by the NHL and spent two months in prison after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence against a spouse, gave the Russians a 1-0 lead with a half-second remaining in the first period with a quick shot from the high slot that zipped past Germany goalie Danny Aus Den Birken.
Germany tied it at 9:32 of the second period on a close-in shot by former Buffalo Sabres draft pick Felix Schutz that Russia goaltender Vasili Koshechkin knocked into the net with his own blocker, and the teams exchanged goals in the third period. Gusev scored from a sharp angle over the German goalie’s shoulder at 13:21 and Dominik Kahun cashed in from the slot at 13:31.
Germany took a 3-2 lead with 3:16 left in the third period on a shot by Jonas Muller from between the faceoff circles, but Russia pulled even while killing a penalty. With Koshechkin pulled in favor of an extra skater, the Russians worked the puck down low and let Gusev work his magic from a sharp angle deep on the left side.
“I think we thought we won,” Goc said, “but they didn’t stop.”
Kaprizov ended the game 29 seconds after Germany’s Patrick Reimer was sent off for high-sticking, triggering roars from fans who had chanted and sung and waved Russian flags throughout the game.
“This was my dream since I was 5 years old,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s good for Russia, it’s good for Russian hockey, it’s good for everybody. I think the final was so exciting and unpredictable. I think that’s what this tournament is all about.”