International Ice Hockey Federation

Nerve jangler

Nerve jangler

Czechs hold on to clinch QF spot

Published 19.02.2014 00:08 GMT+4 | Author Andy Potts
Nerve jangler
SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 18: Czech Republic's Ales Hemsky #83 scores his first period goal against Slovakia's Jan Laco #50 during men's qualification round action at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
A strong Slovakia fightback turns a 4-0 deficit into a one-goal game - but the Czechs edge the verdict thanks to a late empty-netter from Tomas Plekanec.

The Czech Republic won its neighbourhood dispute with Slovakia, but had to withstand a strong fightback before edging a 5-3 verdict.

Early goals from Ales Hemsky and Roman Cervenka set the Czechs on their way, and when Cervenka's second of the night made it 4-0 late in the middle frame it seemed that a comfortable win was on the cards.

But two goals from Marian Hossa helped the Slovaks roar back into contention, leaving Hemsky bemused by the games tight finish.

"We were just very, very static," he said. "Suddenly they came to life and scored some goals. All of a sudden the game changed.

"We can't afford to be static like that, we have to play out the game."

The night had started impressively for the Czechs. After a disappointing group phase which offered only one win - against underdog Latvia - there were big questions in front of Alois Hadamczik's team.

Debate raged over the roster's reliance on aging talent in the shape of Jaromir Jagr and Petr Nedved; many queried the decision not to call up Jiri Hudler for the Games. Even though the team wasn't expected to seriously challenge for gold, hockey-mad Czech fans demanded more. Finally, in the first period of the qualification round, they got it.

The Czech power play, toothless for so long in this tournament, finally bared its fangs in style to lead Jagr & Co into a quarter-final clash with the USA.

In the group stage the Czechs managed just one goal on 12 power plays, with only Switzerland coming up worse. But just 15 seconds after Martin Marancin settled into the sin bin, Slovak goalie Jan Laco was picking the puck out of his net.

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Jakub Voracek was the architect, thumping in a shot from the blue line then retrieving the puck after it was hacked clear and picking out Hemsky for a straightforward finish from clear ice in front of the net.

Laco, who performed heroically to keep Russia at bay for 65 minutes in his previous game, had little time to reflect before he was beaten again. Tomas Plekanec's surge from the red line saw him fire against the post and the rebound dropped kindly for Cervenka to score his first Olympic goal.

Slovakia, winless in the group phase and desperately short of goals, was shell-shocked. In less than eight minutes its hopes of reaching the quarter-finals lay in tatters as its near neighbour and bitterest rival took a vice-like grip on the game.

And things went from bad to worse before the first intermission with a second power play goal for the Czechs. This time David Krejci unleashed a rocket of a one-timer which flashed past the startled Laco after Tomas Kaberle worked the puck along the blue line and picked out his team-mate almost on the face-off spot. From 94 seconds of numerical advantages, the Czechs had fashioned two goals - and taken complete control of the game.

The second period was less dramatic; the teams traded shots on goal but failed to test the goalies until close to the hooter. Then things got worse for Slovakia as an error set Cervenka on his way to a second goal. Andrej Sekera got into trouble on the Czech blue line and Cervenka stole the puck before racing up the ice, deking on Laco and placing it upstairs.

That goal, and Marian Hossa's shot wide of goal on a similar solo surge moments later, largely summed up Slovakia's tournament. Individual errors were punished, while chances went begging at the other end. But the tide was about to turn.

Sekera found some consolation quickly, claiming an assist as Slovakia finally posted a marker of its own 63 seconds before the intermission. He found Michal Handzus behind the net, and the forward passed back for Marian Hossa to fire home as Milan Bartovic screened Ondrej Pavelec.

Then, belately, the Slovaks really came to the party in the third period with two goals in 90 seconds to transform the atmosphere in the Shayba Arena. Hossa found the net again at 7:20, reacting sharply to crack a vicious effort past Pavelec after the goalie had padded away a Handzus shot.

Next Peter Olvecky tested Pavelec with a rising effort before Tomas Surovy hauled us back into a one-goal game with another good finish after Bartovic collected Sekera's pass on the blue line and slipped the puck inside for his team-mate.

For Cervenka the sudden slump in form was hard to explain. "After the fourth goal we started to play differently but it's not easy to say why," he said. "Up to then it had been our best game - we scored a couple of goals straightaway but we still ended up struggling at the end."

The Czechs called a time-out, but Slovakia continued to press, outshooting its opponent in the final session in desperate pursuit of an improbable equaliser. The Czechs were increasingly stretched, and it wasn't until Andrej Meszaros picked up a last-minute slashing penalty as he halted a breakaway from Martin Hanzal that Slovakia's chances finally faded away. A third power play goal, this time Plekanec into an empty net, wrapped up the win at last.

"We were waiting for a chance on the power play," said Slovakia's forward Tomas Tatar. "I thought that would be how we could tie the game, but we didn't get anything."

Slovakia's difficult tournament ended in defeat. But after being humbled by the USA and humiliated by Slovenia, Vladimir Vujtek's team can take some consolation from its battling stalemate against Russia and its rousing last stand against the Czechs. Depleted by injuries, this was no longer the team which surprised everyone with World Championship silver in 2012, but it finally showed some flashes of that form even in defeat.

Zdeno Chara admitted the team's showing was baffling. "That's the million dollar question," he said. "We had a really rough game against the U.S. and that put us down a bit mentally, the confidence wasn't there. But we bounced back against Russia in probably our best game of the tournament. 

"We thought we would follow that up tonight but we didn't really do it. It's obviously disappointing."

The Czechs, meanwhile, will be hoping to reprise the opening stages of tonight's game as they prepare to face the free-scoring USA attack in Wednesday's quarter-final.

"We have to make sure to play defence well," said Voracek of the next game. "They have great line-up and they can score on you from any line."

The quarter-final starts at 9pm local time, 6pm Central European Time.


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