COLOGNE – In dramatic fashion, the Czechs have returned to the top of the hockey world. On Sunday night, they ended a 27-game Russian win streak at the IIHF World Championship, holding on for a 2-1 gold medal victory, and claimed the crown for the first time in five years.
Few imagined this could happen earlier in the tournament, after the Czechs lost to nations like Norway and Switzerland in round-robin play. But now it's golden reality for head coach Vladimir Ruzicka and his crew of unheralded skaters.
Meanwhile, Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov's hopes of winning a third straight world title have turned to dust. Ditto for his eight returnees who played on both the '08 and '09 Russian squads.
"We expected more, but unfortunately today was not our day," Bykov said.
Jakub Klepis and Tomas Rolinek scored a goal apiece for the Czechs in the first and second periods. Pavel Datsyuk replied late in the third period.
"I think we played well, but it wasn’t enough," said Datsyuk. "We’re very disappointed. We wanted to win gold for a third year."
Czech goalie Tomas Vokoun posted his second career win in a gold medal game, prevailing over Russia's Semyon Varlamov, as Russia outshot the Czechs 36-25. Vokoun was also in net when the Czechs blanked Canada 3-0 for gold in 2005.
"Vokoun is the best goalkeeper not only in this World Championship, but in the whole world," said Ruzicka.
The atmosphere was frenetic and boisterous, with chanting, flag-brandishing Russian fans outnumbering their Czech counterparts in the sold-out Lanxess Arena, with a World Championship record attendance for an indoor game in a hockey arena (19,132).
On the ice, though, the Czechs gained the advantage with smart, disciplined, vintage Czech counterattacking hockey. It was a case of a team with just two “name players” in Vokoun and Jaromir Jagr defeating some of the NHL's most famous and high-priced Russian talent.
"This was probably the biggest surprise in hockey history," Jagr said. "They had stars and we had guys who play in the Czech Republic, but this shows that talent doesn't matter--you have to work hard."
The Russians, who finished a disappointing sixth in February's Vancouver Olympics, were desperate to win gold in Germany as a sort of redemption, and their stacked roster included 14 Olympians. Ilya Kovalchuk took the tournament scoring title with 12 points. But that wasn't the title the Russians wanted.
"It’s one game, not a seven-game series," said Kovalchuk. "Anything can happen. Their goalie played well, and we hit a couple of posts."
"I think we did a good job trying in the end, but it's disappointing, every time you lose the final," said Sergei Gonchar. "I think we deserved to take the game into overtime."
Despite the low score, this turned out to be an intense, exciting battle between the two traditional rivals. When the Russians and Czechs clash, it's no longer politically charged as it was during the tense Communist years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But the passion is still definitely there anytime there's a rematch of the 1998 Olympic final, which the Czechs won 1-0 in Nagano.
This might have been the final appearance in international competition for two great old warhorses, Russia's Sergei Fedorov and the Czech Republic's Jaromir Jagr, and if so, both acquitted themselves with honour. At 40, Fedorov sacrificed his body and put everything into his shots, while the 38-year-old Jagr controlled the puck effectively along the boards and made plays with his usual aplomb.
"I hope it wasn't my last game [with the national team]," Jagr said. "I love the game, and want to play as long as possible."
A Russian defensive gaffe led to the Czechs scoring the opening goal just 20 seconds in. Jagr grabbed the puck behind the net and, with Varlamov paddle down and focused on the Czech legend, fed the puck in front to an unguarded Jakub Klepis, who hammered it into the unguarded cage. Defenders slid everywhere in vain.
The Russians came back with tremendous pressure, and Maxim Afinogenov got into the clear, but was stopped by Vokoun on the backhand deke. Seconds later, Fedorov put one off the post.
Afinogenov almost got another breakaway, but was hauled down by Petr Caslava, affording Russia its first power play of the night. There were chances at both ends: a Czech shorthanded 2-on-1 that a sprawling Alexander Ovechkin broke up, a dangerous stickhandling foray by Evgeni Malkin that Vokoun got down to block.
As the period wound down, Afinogenov continued to be Russia's most dangerous forward, but couldn't fool Vokoun on his dazzling solo forays.
The Russians thought they'd tied the game when Datsyuk lifted a loose puck over Vokoun from a tight angle at the horn, but it was ruled no goal since time had expired. Just like against Germany in the semi-finals, Russia went to the dressing room down 1-0 after one.
The Czechs got the first good chance of the second period when Petr Koukal raced away shorthanded on a partial breakaway, but couldn't deke past Varlamov. Although the Russians continued to dominate play, opportunities popped up in both zones.
Halfway through the game, Alexei Tereshchenko high-sticked Jakub Klepis, and the Czechs finally went to the man advantage. They managed to bottle the Russians up for most of the minor, but couldn't capitalize on the pressure despite excellent puck movement.
With Russia continuing to outshoot the Czechs, how much longer could this game stay stuck at 1-0? The answer was, not much longer. But it wasn't in Russia's favour.
Seconds after Ovechkin totalled Fedorov in the Czech zone, the Czechs went up 2-0 on a lucky play with 1:47 left in the second. Rolinek went hard to the net and a centering pass from Karel Rachunek deflected high off his skate into the net past Varlamov. The play was video-reviewed and deemed good, sans kicking motion.
"When they made it 2-0, it was very tough," said Datsyuk.
The Russians desperately tried to get on the board in the third period, but couldn't generate much. Vokoun stopped Ovechkin on a promising right wing rush near the midpoint, coming out to challenge and giving no rebound.
Next, the Russians got into trouble with physical play. Petr Koukal, not carrying the puck, was shaken up in a neutral-zone collision with Alexei Tereshchenko and was slow to get up, looking like he'd taken a blow to the head. Moments later, Jagr went head-over-heels in a collision along the boards with Alexei Emelin, who was ejected from the game with a five-minute major for clipping at 9:50.
This killed off Russia's chances of coming back, even though the Czechs didn't generate a plethora of chances. When the Russians had a chance to do something, they opted for individualistic rushes that failed. And, to make things worse, just before the major was set to expire, Russia's Viktor Kozlov took a hooking minor with 5:14 left.
After surviving the Czech power play, the Russians pulled Varlamov for the extra attacker with under three minutes remaining. The Czechs took two back-to-back minors, enabling Russia to get a rare 6-on-3 man advantage. It turned into a 5-on-3 when Malkin took a roughing penalty. The Russians got another push with Datsyuk setting up Ovechkin in front, the "Great 8" banging away futilely at the Czech goalie. With under a minute left, Vokoun stoned Ovechkin again on a faceoff one-timer.
With 35 seconds left, Datsyuk cut the deficit to 2-1 with a perfect one-timer, set up by Kovalchuk, along the ice from the other faceoff circle.
The Russians managed one last electrifying rush, but Vokoun held his ground. After a final faceoff in the Czech end, it was over. The Czechs jubilantly mobbed their netminder.
"We were huge underdogs coming into the tournament, and we almost didn't even make it to the playoff stage," Vokoun said. "You always read about those great stories, and now it's happened to me."
Russia's dream had ended in bitterness and darkness, while the sun had finally risen again for the Czech Republic.
"We played like a team, even though we don’t have many stars," said Petr Caslava. "We played with heart."
Will this victory herald a new golden era for the Czechs like the period of 1998 to 2001? Or is it, more likely, just a happy blip? Only time will tell.
The last time the Czechs earned a medal at the World Championship, they settled for silver versus Sweden in the 2006 final in Latvia. After that, they fell four straight times in the quarterfinals of the Worlds and Olympics -- until this tournament.
No new Triple Gold Club members emerged from this game. Triple Gold Club status is awarded to players who have won the Olympics, World Championships, and Stanley Cup.
The Czechs will open defence of their world crown next April at the 2011 IIHF World Championship in neighbouring Slovakia (Bratislava and Kosice).