QUEBEC – Vitali Koval is an unknown no more at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
The Belarusian netminder shed the “little-known” tag with a 52-save performance in which he nearly carried his upstart Belarus team to victory over a heavily favoured Russian squad before narrowly losing 4-3 in a shootout on Friday.
Koval, a 28-year-old who plays in Belarus and is at his first international tournament against this calibre of opponent, says perhaps he has something more up his sleeve.
“Maybe you’ll see something even better than that,” Koval said following the hard-fought contest. “I’ll try my best.”
With Belarus needing to win its next two games in the qualifying round, Koval’s performance has given a boost to his teammates.
“I haven’t seen him play before this tournament and I’m very pleased with his game,” said Belarus team captain Ruslan Salei. “He gives us a chance in every game and that’s what you want from your goalie.”
Alexei Morozov beat Koval with a backhander for the shootout winner.
Fans at Le Pepsi Colisee took notice of the Belarusian goaltender’s superb performance and chanted his name when he was passed up for player of the game.
“It’s not the best game of my life,” Koval said through a translator.”We lost the game and that’s why this isn’t the best game of my life.”
Andrei Mikhalev, Dimitry Dudik and Alexei Ugarov scored for Belarus in regulation. Ugarov had a chance to keep the shootout going in the third round but didn’t score.
Maxim Afinogenov of the Buffalo Sabres scored two goals and Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin added another for Russia, which remain undefeated at the tournament.
Elsewhere in the tournament it was: Finland 2, Latvia 1; Slovakia 5, Slovenia 1; and France 3, Italy 2.
Belarus held the lead until 7:21 of the third period when Ovechkin finally tied the game at 2-2 with a snapshot against Koval, who’d frustrated Ovechkin on a handful of occasions in the second period.
Afinogenov gave the Russians a brief lead at 13:51 of the third period but Ugarov tied the game 3-3 on a beautiful feed from Montreal Canadiens centre Mikhail Grabovski at 16:12.
Despite a number of chances, neither team was able to score in a wide-open overtime that included a Russian power play.
“We expected a tough game and it’s always a tight game between these guys,” Afinogenov said.
“(Koval) had almost 50 saves, that’s a pretty good goalie. He saved the game for them.”
Koval says he has been gaining confidence after letting in five goals against Sweden in the tournament opener.
“Confidence comes with time,” Koval said.
“I lack the experience of participating in such top events and playing against such opponents on that level of game.”
Belarus managed just five shots on goal in the first period but made them count, scoring at 7:27 of the first when Mikhalev converted a pass from Grabovski past goaltender Mikhail Biryukov.
Belarus capitalized on a sloppy play by Washington Capitals centre Sergei Fedorov to add to their lead.
Fedorov lazily dropped a pass behind him with Dudik hot on the forecheck. Dudik picked off the puck and fired it past a stunned Biryukov, who turned aside 20 saves through regulation. Biryukov got the start despite the arrival of San Jose Sharks star Evgeni Nabokov, who was dressed for the Russians.
The Russians finally got on the board at 3:54 of the second period when Afinogenov, standing in front of the net, knocked in a rebound of a Vitali Proshkin point shot.
The Russians had plenty of chances in the first two periods, when they fired 36 shots on Koval. He stoned Ovechkin on a breakaway early in the second, and made a brilliant save on a one-timer from the sniper later in the period.
“They have the top players in the world and it’s not that easy to stop them but we managed to do that for most of the game,” said Salei, who battled with Ovechkin much of the contest.
“It didn’t happen today, but I think we have a pretty good future.”
Although he didn’t grab himself the game puck or any other memento, playing against Russia’ explosive offence was something that Koval will always cherish.
And after stoning the NHL’s leading scorer in Ovechkin on a number of occasions, could another trip to North America be in the cards for the goaltender?
“I don’t know what the future holds,” Koval said.
“But I think every player has a dream to play in the NHL.”
NOTES: Atlanta Thrashers sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, who is among the Russian leaders in points, has failed to score a goal thus far in the tournament and missed a number of chances Friday . . . defencemen Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens and Fedor Tyutin of the New York Rangers made their debuts for the Russians.
Finland 2, Latvia 1
At Halifax, a spectacular 62-save effort by Latvian goalie Edgar Masalskis wasn’t enough as Niko Kapanen scored late in the third for the win.
Slovakia 5, Slovenia 1
At Halifax, Marcel Hossa had a goal and two assists as Slovakia rolled over Slovenia in IIHF action.
France 3, Italy 2
At Quebec, Armin Helfer’s late third period goal wasn’t enough as Cristobal Huet stopped Italy’s comeback bid with 40 saves.