QUEBEC CITY – Before the puck dropped, most figured the Italians would be like Christians fed to the lions on the retro Czech jerseys their opponents wore Tuesday night. And that’s what happened.
The 7-2 final score had no effect on the Group D standings, as the Czechs had second spot sewn up and the Italians were bound for the Relegation Round regardless.
Sparking the attack, Radim Vrbata scored two goals, bringing his team-leading total to four. Patrick Elias, Marek Zidlicky, and Martin Erat had a goal and an assist each, and Tomas Kaberle chipped in three assists.
“It was a nothing game,” said Erat. “We just went in and tried to win the game without getting injured. It was nice to just take it easy in the third period. The Italians have a lot of Canadians. They tried their best, and I hope they can stay in the top division.”
The overmatched Roman gladiators resisted valiantly in the first half of the Colisee encounter.
The Czech offence clicked just 41 seconds in, as Martin Erat got to the front of Italian goalie Gunther Hell’s net to finish off a neat passing play involving Elias and Kaberle.
But the Italians had an answer just 18 seconds later when Luca Ansoldi cheekily fired the puck through Czech netminder Marek Pinc’s legs on an offensive zone faceoff. It was a move you’d associate more with Mario Lemieux. And at 3:06, Nicola Fontanive barreled down left wing, cut in, and pounded a slapper over Pinc’s glove.
A minute later, the Czechs evened the score again. Vrbata cut in from the right side, tried a centering pass that bounced back to him, moved into the slot and knifed a backhand past Hell to tie it 2-2.
Shortly afterwards, forward Tomas Rolinek fell awkwardly next to the Czech bench and had to be helped off by the trainer and teammate Zbynek Michalek.
The Czechs carried the play for the rest of the opening stanza, but the Italians hung tight. Hell made a great stick save at close range off Vrbata with under two minutes left in the opening stanza.
It couldn’t last. Zidlicky put the Czechs up 3-2 at 1:29 of the second period when his power play one-timer from the left faceoff circle zipped through Hell’s five-hole.
The Italians continued to play tenaciously despite being outshot, but that wouldn’t be enough.
Just past the halfway point, Vrbata was left alone in the faceoff circle, and zinged a high wrister under the crossbar to give the Czechs a two-goal edge.
Working a late second-period man advantage, Elias finished off a beautiful give-and-go with Kaberle to put the game out of reach. And Filip Kuba’s low, hard drive squeaked over the line to make it 6-2 at 19:03.
When Jaroslav Hlinka made it 7-2 at 3:53 of the third period, Hell was replaced by Thomas Tragust for the rest of the night.
This was ultimately much like other Czech-Italian encounters of the new millennium, including Czech wins of 9-2 (2000) and 11-0 (2001).
“We started well, but we just couldn’t do it,” said Ansoldi. “Our World Championship begins now, just like previous tournaments.”
The Czechs face the winner of the Sweden-Switzerland game to open the Qualifying Round on Thursday, and Italy’s Relegation Round struggle kicks off versus the loser of Belarus-France that day.
“We were playing against a really good team with outstanding passing,” said Italian coach Mickey Goulet. “Few teams in the world can move the puck like the Czechs do. Our group with the Czechs, Russia, and Denmark was tough.”
Asked about the possibility of facing France in relegation play, Goulet said: “We saw France play against Sweden, and they played outstanding hockey in the first period. We always have tight games against them.”