PREROV, Czech Republic – Solid defence was key for the Czech Republic as they return to winning ways to seal gold at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group A on home ice in Prerov.
2014 continues to be a prosperous year for Czech women's hockey. Less than two weeks after their under-18 team has won bronze at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championships, four straight wins at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A on home ice in Prerov secured the gold medals ahead of the final round of games. An ensuing qualification play-off with Japan, last ranked at the Olympics, will later this year decide which of the two teams will make the step up to the top division at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Malmö, Sweden.
"Our development is going in the right direction and we showed already last year that we can play equal with teams in the top division such as Sweden, Russia and Germany," said Czech head coach Jiri Vozak, who worked as assistant coach to Karel Manhart as the Czech national team suffered double heartbreak last year, first missing out on Olympic qualification to Sochi and then a couple of months later ending up on the losing side in a two-legged relegation decider against Sweden at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships in Ottawa - their inaugural appearance in the top division.
Under Vozak's first season at the helm, the Division I Group A appeared to have sent the Czechs on the right course. Buoyed by a roster that includes seven newly crowned bronze medalists from the U18 Women’s World Championships, the solid if somewhat unspectacular hosts clocked up three straight wins against France (3-0) Austria (2-1) and Norway (2-0) to set them up against neighbours Slovakia in a showdown with major importance for both countries.
With the Czechs looking for a fourth straight win to clinch top-spot and gold medals, winless Slovakia – Olympians in 2010 and playing in the top division as recently as 2012 – desperately needed points on board to stop their free fall and avoid relegation. Carried forward by a boisterous crowd of just over 2,000 inside the newly refurbished ice arena in Prerov, the Czech surged forward from the outset, but despite pinning down the Slovaks deep into their zone, only one sole goal by the Czech Republic's Simona Studentova separated the two teams going into the first intermission.
When Slovakia's Lenka Srokova boomed in a power-play goal high past 17-year-old World Championship rookie netminder Klara Peslarova to tie the game at 13:04 of the middle frame, nerves started to creep at both teams. Earning a 15-9 shot advantage in the second period, the Czechs continued to create chances, but squandered them in equal measure with lively Denisa Krizova being the main culprit as she failed to convert two golden opportunities at the end of the second period.
In the end all came good for the Czechs. The crowd had hardly found their seats as Krizova atoned for her earlier misses. This time she was the instigator behind Czechs’ winning goal and needed only ten seconds into the period to find Vendula Pribylova, who made it 2-1. With 2:39 left of the encounter, captain Alena Polenska hit the final nail in the coffin as the Czechs stretched their lead to 3-1. Home players and fans celebrated in unison, while the Slovaks knew demotion to Division IB awaited them.
While the main challengers to spoil the Czech party had expected to come from Scandinavia, Denmark showed great character to overcome Austria after a moral-boosting overtime win in their opening fixture despite being behind for most of the game. Finishing second in this division last year, Danish defensive frailties were badly exposed in their second game against Norway, conceding three unanswered first period goals in a 5-1 loss. Norway – a top division nation between 1990-1997 – showed flashes of brilliance and an attacking prowess coming mainly from Ingvild Farstad and Andrea Dalen but the Division IA silver medalists from 2011 and 2012 shot themselves in the foot after a fine start to the tournament with consecutive losses against Czech Republic which appeared to have dampened their spirits as Austria easily saw off the toothless Norwegians 5-2.
Newly promoted France entered the tournament as the lowest ranked team, but having beaten both Slovakia (3-1) and Austria (7-2), they look to cap off a fine tournament with a medal. A win against Norway could take them to the silver medals, as the Czech Republic look to finish the tournament with an unblemished record and a win against Denmark ahead of their upcoming play-off games with Japan for a place at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. Click here for scores, stats and photos.