Russian gold-medal favorites lose opening game to Slovakia

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) The latest iteration of the Russian Red Machine started its Olympic hockey tournament against Slovakia on Wednesday and lost 3-2.

The Russians gave up a two-goal lead as defensive errors allowed Slovakia to end the first period tied at 2-2. Peter Ceresnak then scored the game-winner with a slapshot in the third.

”I got a perfect pass from Martin Hasek and then I just closed my eyes shut and it finished in the goal,” Ceresnak said.

On a night when Slovenia beat the United States 3-2 in overtime, an Olympic tournament without NHL players offers a chance for smaller nations to shine.

And they are already making a go at it.

”This is a tournament of big surprises,” said Ceresnak, who plays in the Czech league. ”Every team here can beat every other team.”

Russia will next play Slovenia on Friday, while Slovakia takes on the United States on the same day.

Before the tournament, the Russians were considered to be the gold-medal favorites in the first Olympics since 1994 without NHL players. However, they were also the favorites on home ice in Sochi four years ago, only to struggle under the pressure before losing to Finland in the quarterfinals.

This time around, they are playing under the name ”Olympic Athletes from Russia” as part of the country’s punishment from the International Olympic Committee for doping at the 2014 Sochi Games. If they win the gold medal, the Olympic anthem will play.

Still, the red and white jerseys of the OAR team are a powerful reminder of Russian and Soviet hockey heritage. And failing to beat Slovakia at the Olympics is a reminder of more recent problems.

Russian teams have now played Slovakia in four consecutive Olympic tournaments, losing three of those and winning in 2014 in a shootout.

The Russians scored twice in the first five minutes at the Gangneung Hockey Center, with Nikolai Prokhorkin scoring off an assist from Vladislav Gavrikov to take the early lead. Minnesota Wild prospect Kirill Kaprizov followed up with another, hitting the puck in mid-air past Slovakia goaltender Branislav Konrad.

Slovakia recorded only four shots in the first period, but scored on two of them just before the intermission.

Peter Olvecky first beat Russian goalie Vasily Koshechkin with a wrist shot. Then Martin Bakos, who had been checked into the Russian bench minutes before, made it 2-2 on a breakaway after opposing defenseman Nikita Nesterov lost the puck at the blue line.

”Everyone started attacking more and they seem to have forgotten about defense,” said Pavel Datsyuk, the captain of the Russian team.

The Russians tried to respond after Ceresnak’s goal but couldn’t take advantage of two power plays in the final 10 minutes.

There are no flags on the OAR jerseys, but the stands were full of Russian tricolors and South Korean locals lined up to pose for photos with one supporter in a bear costume.

Chants of ”Forward Russia” and ”Victory” echoed around the arena, which was barely half-full with large areas of empty seats behind both goals.

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org