STOCKHOLM – These are the easy games to get up for, the easy games to explain, the easy games to watch. Win or go home. For the Norwegians and Czechs, the playoff round starts one game earlier because of the teams’ positions in the preliminary-round standings.
Norway has nine points and the Czechs eight. Norway is in fourth place and the Czechs fifth. Only the top four advance to the quarter-finals, and they play each other this afternoon. The winner qualifies; the loser flies home, finishing somewhere between 5th and 8th.
“I think we’re more excited than feeling the pressure,” said Norway’s coach Roy Johansen. “We have nine points, and we have a chance to be in the quarter-finals. This is a good position for us.”
The team had a chance to clinch a playoff spot two days ago against Switzerland, but it started poorly, never recovered, and lost 3-1.
“The Swiss out-skated us in the first period and played well,” Johansen conceded. “They’ve had a great tournament so far. It was better in the second and third for us, but overall the result was disappointing.”
“They got the first goal too easily, and then they scored on our power play,” said Anders Bastiansen, who leads the team in goals (4) and points (5). “We need to be the ones to score on our power play.”
That loss puts all the onus on the team to beat an opponent it has vanquished only once in 15 meetings over 76 years.
“We really want to get to the quarter-finals, but we know we have a tough opponent,” Bastiansen continued. “They’ve been struggling a little bit, but they’re probably the better team on paper. We have everything to win tomorrow and not as much to lose as them. We have a good chance to win if we play the way we did against Belarus.”
Therein lies Norway’s chances. While the Czechs have been one of the great teams in international hockey for decades, they have not been impressive in Stockholm this year and seem more vulnerable than usual. The team has but a 2-1-0-3 record so far and has scored only 12 goals in six games.
“They didn’t play so well in the first five games,” Johansen acknowledged, “but they played well against Canada and they have new players coming in. They’ll get energy from that. It’s going to be a tough game, of course.”
The lone Norway victory came only in 2010, so recent history should give the team a little extra confidence.
“We have to play our trap well, play tough in front of the net and not let them have easy chances because they have plenty of skilled players who can score,” Bastiansen explained. “We have to do what we’re good at—blocking shots, trapping, that sort of thing. This is a great opportunity for us, and we’re going to enjoy it.”
The Norwegian players were relaxed at yesterday’s practice and seem ready for the challenge, knowing they won’t be demoted if they lose, knowing that they might advance to the quarter-finals for only the third time since the playoff format was introduced to the World Championship in 1992.
In 2008, they lost to Canada, 8-1, and finished 8th, and in 2011, they lost to Finland, 4-1, and finished 6th, their best result since 1962.
“We’re happy to be staying in this level,” Johansen said. “We had some tough games in the start and won them. But we didn’t play well against Canada, and we had a chance against the Swedes. Still, it’s okay.”