NIAGARA – It wasn’t pretty, but Sweden set up a showdown for first place in Group B against Canada on New Year’s Eve by defeating the Czech Republic, 6-3. While the Swedes now can focus on trying to get a semi-final bye, the Czechs are again involved in relegation woes.
While undefeated Sweden (3W-0L) – for the first time during this championship – will move into the HSBC Arena in Buffalo for the New Year’s tilt against Canada, the Czech Republic (1W-2L) and Russia will play a crucial game in Niagara’s Dwyer Arena the same day. Incredibly, the loser of that game will go to the Relegation Round.
If Russia ends up among the four last teams of the championship it will be a first, and a major disappointment. If the Czechs miss the playoff round, it will be a continuation of a trend which has been in place since the Czech Republic won a bronze medal in 2005.
In the five IIHF World U20 Championships since then the Czechs have finished 6th, 5th, 5th, 6th, and 7th, with the last placing putting them into the Relegation Round in Saskatoon. During this period of slow but steady decline the Czechs have been solidly outplayed by Sweden.
Prior to the meeting today, Sweden had five consecutive wins against the Czechs, with last year’s 10-1 as the most lopsided score between the teams in Under-20 competition. One has to go back to 2003 in Halifax to find the last Czech win (3-1).
This matchup showcased plenty of sloppy play, defensive errors, mediocre goaltending, unforced penalties and five power play goals, three of them Swedish. The entire Team Canada brass was on site at the cozy arena at the Niagara University campus and they were probably not overly impressed with their opponents prior to the highly anticipated New Year’s Eve showdown.
The Swedes scored five unanswered goals after an early Czech lead, but the Czechs refused to go away and the precocious Martin Frk (only 17 years old) got two quick goals in the second period to cut the deficit to 5-3, to give his team a ray of hope.
But Calle Järnkrok put the game away with the 6-3 goal at 5:48 of the last stanza and this backhander, also Järnkrok’s first goal of the tournament, clearly deflated the opposition. Jesper Fasth led Sweden with two goals.
“We lost something when we led 5-1,” said Fasth who together with Calle Järnkrok was the best Swedish player. “We lost focus or humbleness or both. But we came back and won and that was the main thing.”
While the Swedes march on, the Czech junior program continues to struggle with teams loaded with players from the Canadian major junior leagues. This mix again reflects the character of the team. The style is not traditionally Czech, and it’s not Canadian; it’s something a little bit of everything and this seldom leads to success.
The Czech Republic opened the game in the same fashion as they did against Canada the other day when they took the lead after 49 seconds. This time the Czechs enjoyed an early power-play which resulted in Michal Hlinka’s 1-0 goal when he lifted a backhand from close range over the pad of Fredrik Petersson-Wentzel.
Power-play goals dominated the opening period and Sweden turned the score around through a pair of PP markers. Johan Larsson, on a nice cross feed from Johan Sundström, got them even at 5:53 and they took the lead with four minutes of the first. Rickard Rakell, the Plymouth Whaler, found Max Friberg right in front and goaltender Marek Mazanec was beaten high with backhander.
The interesting fact about Friberg is that he plays his domestic hockey in his hometown Skövde, whose team is in Sweden’s third tier league, called Divison I. It almost never happens nowadays that a player from that level makes to the World U20 national team.
Marek Mazanec did not look particularly sharp on Sweden’s 3-1 goal 70 seconds later. The Czech goalie was far too lax on Jesper Fasth’s harmless shot from the slot. Late period goals, especially on defensive mistakes, are often momentum killers and this one was no exception. The Czechs, who looked sharp and motivated until then, had difficulties recovering.
Sweden grabbed a three-goal lead five minutes into the second period when Sebastian Wännström smartly used a screen in front of Mazanec and beat him with a wrister from the right circle. The Czech goalie was replaced after the 4-1 goal and Filip Novotny took his place, but the backup man was between the pipes for only 43 seconds before the Swedes struck again, with their third power-play goal. It was Fasth’s second of the day.
“If there was something good with this game, it was our power play,” said coach Rönnberg, who also announced that Robin Lehner will be Sweden’s goaltender against Canada. Lehner was perfect in the 2-0 win against Russia last Tuesday.
It was the Czech’s youngest player who provided some much needed spark with Sweden comfortably up 5-1. Frk cut the lead to 5-2 with a neat shot of the rush and he also made it 5-3 while playing on the point on a power play.
A couple of Swedes didn’t look good on that one. Highly touted prospect Adam Larsson took a selfish penalty which led to the man advantage and goalie Peterson-Wentzel simply lost sight of the shot from the blue line, at 14:51 of the second. But that was all that the Czechs could muster.
Finally – how about this stat; Swedish centre Johan Larsson won 18 out of 19 faceoffs in Sweden’s 2-0 win against Russia the other day and his record against the Czech Republic was 12-1 for a total of 30 won faceoffs and two losses. This makes for a faceoff percentage of around 95 percent.
“Johan is a fierce competitor,” commented Roger Rönnberg. “It’s that quality that makes him such an efficient faceoff man.”