MANNHEIM – The Czech Republic got two goals in the second period to break a 1-1 tie and skated to a 3-2 win over Canada. As a result, they finish at least in third place in Group F and advance, with Canada, to the quarterfinals. It was a bitter and tense battle that showed signs of being one more punch or check away from getting out of hand.
Canada finishes fourth and will play the winner of the Russia-Finland game tonight while the Czechs will play the loser of that game. All quarter-finals will be played on Thursday.
"We're going to have to go through the tough teams eventually," said Canadian forward John Tavares. "In whatever order it is, it doesn't really matter. It's a new slate for everybody, and it's do or die now."
Today’s loss was historic in the worst way for Canada. It marked the first time since the playoff system was adopted in 1992 that the motherland of the game has lost three games prior to the quarterfinals.
It made for a strange afternoon as these teams met for an important game – and it was only the Qualifying Round. A loss by the Czechs meant a trip back to Prague, and a loss by Canada meant a likely quarterfinals date with Russia, the heavy favourites this year. The result was a very ornery Czech team that took two boarding penalties and started a fight (that went into the books as a double minor for Tomas Rolinek and Steve Ott) in the first period alone.
As well, the Czechs came out flying, the more desperate team playing more aggressively. They had a couple of good chances early, but goalie Chris Mason, playing his best game of the tournament, stood his ground and made a couple of important saves.
However, it was Ray Whitney who drew first blood, for Canada, on a great play. He took a pass from Marc Giordano while coming down the right wing on a power play and cut in on goal as players from both teams converged on goalie Tomas Vokoun. With so many options, it seemed certain Whitney would pass, but the right-hand shot cut in on goal and slipped a backhand between the goalie’s pads. Goalie Mason drew the second assist on the play.
Canada was in control for most of the period and was certainly the more disciplined team. The Czechs took three consecutive penalties, but Canada could not extend the lead. With less than two minutes to play, however, the inexperience of 19-year-old Jordan Eberle cost the team a goal.
He was too casual taking a pass in centre ice during a power play and was checked off the puck by Jiri Novotny who fed Lukas Kaspar on the fly. Kaspar skated in alone and deked Mason, sliding the puck between the goalie’s pads at 18:20 to tie the game, 1-1. Eberle, meanwhile, sat on the bench for most of the rest of the game.
"I was a little nervous when I was going in there," Kaspar said, "because I'd missed an open net a couple of minutes before. I got the puck from Jiri and I was going in on the goalie. At first I thought shot, but instead I deked him a little bit and put it through his legs."
Both teams continued to play on the edge in the second period, with plenty of pushing and shoving and facewashes after the whistle, and both sides had some fine scoring chances. Mason and Vokoun were rock solid when tested, and an open period soon became more defensive, the next goal becoming more and more important.
Much of the second half of the period was played between the bluelines, but the Czechs got the go-ahead goal at 12:19 off a faceoff in the Canadian end. Jakub Klepis won the faceoff back to Ondrej Nemec at the point and he let go a quick shot. Jaromir Jagr made a sensational, one-handed deflection of the puck while being checked, and the puck bounced past a helpless Mason (although it looked like Petr Vampola was the player who deflected the puck).
They made it 3-1 near the end of the period on the power play when Michal Rozsival hit Klepis with a pass between the defencemen, and Klepis beat Mason with a stick-side deke to make it a 3-1 lead. This time, Vokoun had an assist.
Canada came within one on a wild play. Vokoun played the puck behind his own goal but was checked hard by Corey Perry, who knocked him hard to the ice. As Klepis came in to punch Perry in retaliation, the puck came out front and Matt Duchene put it in the open net with 1:11 left in the third period.
Canada couldn't tie the game with Mason on the bench in the final minute, but a wild melee broke out at the final horn and threatened to turn into a bench-clearing brawl. Players from both benches remained disciplined while they watched all players on ice pair off.
"There were scrums everywhere at the end and guys falling all over the place," said captain Whitney." Unfortunately for Canada, there is no fighting, because we're pretty decent at that."
And so, it’s on to the quarterfinals for both teams on Thursday, and then the real fun begins. Win – or go home. The question for Canada is simple: where is the team speed and scoring? For the Czechs, it’s about momentum. Can they build on their last two wins in a do-or-die game on Thursday?