BRATISLAVA – Jaromir Jagr is still the king. The 39-year-old legend scored three times on Wednesday to lead the Czech Republic to a 4-0 triumph over the USA and a berth in Friday’s first semi-final against Sweden.
Czech Republic – USA 4-0 (1-0, 1-0, 2-0) Game Sheet Photos
Having won seven straight at Orange Arena, the Czechs are now just two victories away from repeating as champions for the first time since 2000. Airtight defence and opportunistic scoring have been the keys, always a good sign for this side.
"We have great goaltending and managed to score goals," said Czech forward Jakub Voracek. "If you get four goals, you should be able to win."
The young Americans (averaging 24.4 years of age), who had just two 2010 Olympic returnees in defencemen Jack Johnson and Mike Komisarek, couldn’t overcome the skill and experience of their opponents.
"We had a young team and the future of USA Hockey looks great," said Komisarek. "We fell short, but the experience of playing in the quarterfinal against such a good team was good."
Jagr's linemate, Tomas Plekanec, added a goal and two helpers for the Czechs. Goalie Ondrej Pavelec registered his second tournament shutout, outdoing the USA’s Ty Conklin as shots favoured the Czech Republic 39-29.
Michael Frolik replaced the injured Martin Havlat (shoulder) on the most effective Czech line in the tournament overall, playing alongside Patrik Elias and Milan Michalek. To fill Havlat’s roster spot, the Czechs added Petr Vampola from the KHL’s Avangard Omsk.
Jagr, an IIHF Triple Gold Club member since 2005, is gunning for his third World Championship title to go with his 1998 Olympic gold medal and Stanley Cup rings from 1991 and 1992 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"What can you say about Jagr?" said Michalek. "He's unbelievable. He's 39 but playing like a 20-year-old, flying on the ice. He's so strong."
Of Pavelec's shutout performance, Michalek added: "He's playing great and has the whole tournament. I hope he keeps on playing like that, as we have two games left."
The Czechs tried to get to Conklin early, firing whenever possible, and he had to be active with his quick glove.
The Americans mounted pressure of their own. Just past the three-minute mark, the Czechs had a close call in their zone when a puck bounced off Marek Zidlicky’s skate and past Pavelec, hitting the post. During a mid-period USA power play, Pavelec was forced to make a superb glove stop when Derek Stepan centered the puck from behind the goal line to an unguarded Craig Smith in the slot.
Jagr put the Czechs on the board with 1:15 left in the first period, racing down right wing on a 3-on-1 rush and squeezing a shot through Conklin’s pads.
Plekanec had a great chance to put the Czechs up 2-0 shorthanded in the first minute of the second period when he broke away from the American defence and circled Conklin’s net after being forced wide, but he couldn’t finish off his wraparound since defenders dislodged the net by sliding into it.
Toward the end of an extended two-man advantage, the Czechs used their timeout to rest and confer, and it paid off. At 4:47 of the second, Karel Rachunek set up Jagr for a big one-timer from the right faceoff circle, which deflected off Komisarek’s stick and fooled Conklin glove side to make it 2-0. The Czech fans in the crowd of 9,311 chanted and bounced up and down in delighted unison.
"I thought it could be the turning point of the game – that’s why I took the time-out," said Czech coach Alois Hadamczik. "I told the players to win the faceoff and to shoot from any position."
After that, the Czechs adopted their classic defensive posture, giving the Americans little ice to mount a comeback, as well as looking for counterattack opportunities. "I think we played great defensively after we got up 2-0," said Michalek. "We controlled the game and limited their chances."
At 10:33 of the third period, Plekanec gave the Czechs an insurmountable 3-0 lead when he took a sweet little feed from Frolik and powered home a short-side shot from the left faceoff circle.
With eight minutes left in the third period, Elias was shaken up on a blindside hit by Johnson behind the American net. He remained down for some time, but skated off under his own power.
Jagr worked a beautiful give-and-go down low with Plekanec on the power play and beat Conklin for his third goal with 3:35 left. Czech fans joyously littered the ice with hats and chanted Jagr's name.
"It's disappointing," said USA captain Mark Stuart. "I thought we had a good team. I think if we played our best game, we could beat anybody at this tournament. It's tough to be out so early, but I'm proud of how hard our guys played."
"The Czech skill took over toward the end of the game, and there’s a reason why they haven’t allowed so many goals in the tournament," said USA coach Scott Gordon. "We did a lot of things we wanted to do, but at the end we didn’t get to the rebounds, the second chances we wanted to get."
The Czech Republic and the USA have met twice previously in quarter-finals (2004, 2005). Both times, it came down to a dramatic shootout duel between Czech netminder Tomas Vokoun and American defenceman Andy Roach. The USA won 3-2 in 2004, while the Czechs prevailed by the same score in 2005.
Conklin was the American netminder in 2004 and was named the tournament’s Best Goalie as the Americans went on to win bronze – their last medal at an IIHF World Championship. The Czechs rode Vokoun to gold the following year.