EDMONTON – Once banned from representing his national team, Petr Mrazek made an excellent World Junior debut. And the Czechs are hungry for more in the quarter-finals.
It’s definitely the Cinderella story of this year’s IIHF World Junior Championship. After two years in the relegation round and six years out of the semi-finals, the Czechs will be back among the top-six nations at this year’s World Juniors. The only question is how far they will get.
Going into the tournament, the Czechs knew they would have the difficult task of needing to leave either Canada, Finland or the United States behind to reach the final round. Already before today’s game for second place in this group against Finland, the Czechs know they will be in the quarter-finals after sensationally defeating the 2010 World Junior Champion USA 5-2 the day before.
One of the main reasons was Mrazek, who put up a 52-save performance.
“Mrazek was amazing. He stopped everything. You can’t beat that,” said Czech forward Tomas Filippi, who scored two goals against the U.S.
“I think this was the best game I played in my life,” Mrazek said, echoing the sentiments. “We felt incredible here. Nobody thought we would play in the quarter-finals here, but we played like a team and we can go far.”
Indeed, the final-round qualification came rather unexpected for many hockey followers in and outside of the Czech Republic.
“Back home in the Czech Republic they didn’t believe we could make the quarter-finals,” Filippi explained. “They expected us to play (in the relegation round) against Latvia and these teams.”
The expectations going into the tournament are also confirmed by journalists.
“The Czechs don’t come to the World Juniors to play in the relegation round, but we expected them to do that. We didn’t expect much,” said Pavel Barta, a former spokesman of the Czech Ice Hockey Association who writes for a Czech sports daily in Edmonton.
“It was a surprise. This team was underrated. And we know we had better goaltending,” Barta added.
What he means is Mrazek, who is in his last year of U20 eligibility, and the controversy about him back home as he was banned from representing the team in the past.
Mrazek transferred from his native club Vitkovice Ostrava to the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s in 2009. It was a transfer that was approved because no contract was binding him with Vitkovice, where he played on the junior teams.
However, Vitkovice didn’t accept the decision that Mrazek could leave the club without receiving any sort of compensation.
“Clubs in the Czech Republic have the right to veto nominations to national teams in the case of transfer disputes,” Barta said. That’s why Mrazek has never played a single game in IIHF competition.
Luckily for the U20 national team, the Czech Ice Hockey Association resolved the dispute and convinced Vitkovice to abstain from vetoing Mrazek’s participation again.
The Detroit Red Wings’ fifth-round draft pick was more than happy about making the final round at the expense of the Americans, and all the cheering he got from the fans in Edmonton.
But he doesn’t see himself as a hero. The job is not done yet.
“The tournament is not finished. We have a game (against Finland) and then the quarter-finals,” Mrazek said.
The Czechs’ dream of making the semi-finals for the first time since winning the bronze medal in 2005 in Grand Forks, USA.
And Barta feels that the Czech juniors can not only trust on strong goaltending.
“The team has more offensive punch,” he noted. “The players were selected according to their character. They are much better as a team.”
Unlike in the past, the Czechs have a good team play. And the players seem to both get along well with each other and have a good atmosphere in the dressing room. This can be heard under the stands after each game when the Czechs loudly celebrate after leaving the stands.
Filippi hopes that the times the Czechs play in the relegation round, or even get demoted to Division I like the U18 national team in 2007, are relicts of the past.
“When you beat the U.S., you can build something new,” Filippi says, looking forward to the final round. “We showed we can beat everybody. It can beat the USA, Russia, everybody right now.”
For today the opponent will be Finland. The winner of this game will finish the group in second place and face either Switzerland or Slovakia in the quarter-finals. The loser will end up in third spot and will receive the tougher opponent on paper, either Sweden or Russia.