For the Czech Republic, which hasn’t medaled since 2012’s bronze, making the podium at these Worlds is far from inevitable. However, beating Italy pretty much was. On Friday night, the Czechs thrashed the Italians 8-0 for their fourth win in five games.
Michael Frolik led the way with two goals and two assists. Dmitrij Jaskin had two goals and an assist, and Milan Gulas, Radko Gudas, Jan Kovar and Dominik Simon also tallied for the Czechs.
"It's awesome," said Frolik. "You can see the crowd. It's close to our home. So the atmosphere is unbelievable here. We are happy. I think we are playing good hockey so far, and hopefully we can keep it going. We've got two more games in the group. Hopefully we can finish strong and make sure we are ready for the quarter-final."
Like Michal Repik, captain Jakub Voracek had two helpers. Frolik (5+5=10) and Voracek (2+8=10) are vying for the tournament scoring title, neck-and-neck with Russia's Nikita Kucherov and Sweden's William Nylander (3+7=10).
The hapless Italians have now been outscored 38-0 in their five consecutive losses. They gave it their all against coach Milos Riha's men, keeping it a one-goal game until almost the halfway mark. But it wasn't enough to secure any points. Italy next faces Norway on Saturday, while the Czechs take on Austria on Sunday.
Asked when this drought will end, Italy's Simon Kostner said: "I guess when it's the time! I hope it comes tomorrow. It will be a big relief for all of us."And just how important are these remaining group games for Italy. Simon Kostner added: "We knew from the start that these would be our key games. If we have to win games, we have to win those two games. Okay, we saw Norway won today against Austria. So the big game is probably against Austria. But a couple of points against Norway will help us too."
Goalie Pavel Francouz, a five-time World Championship participant and the Czech starter at last year’s Olympics, made his 2019 debut after spending this season mostly with the AHL’s Colorado Eagles. The 28-year-old made 15 saves for the shutout. Italian starter Marco de Filippo Roia had 40 stops.
The pro-Czech crowd at Ondrej Nepela Arena was jacked up with chants of “Cesi!” The din only grew louder when Czech speedskater Martina Sablikova, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, was introduced on the big video screen in a jersey with a white lion wearing a golden crown.
After a slightly slow start for the favourites, Dominik Kubalik set up Gulas for a shot from the right faceoff dot that beat de Filippo Roia high to the glove side at 7:04. It was the first career World Championship goal for Gulas. Remarkably, the 33-year-old HC Plzen captain, who led the Extraliga with 62 points this year, is a newcomer to this tournament.
The Czech assault was on. Only de Filipppo Roia’s focus and the diligent box play of his mates kept the first-period score from being higher, as the Narodni tym outshot the underdogs 15-2.
Early in the second period, De Filippo Roia slid across smartly to foil Dominik Simon when Voracek set him up on an odd-man rush. But soon afterwards, the roof fell in.
At 7:09, Gudas made it 2-0 with a shot from centre ice that bounced and caught de Filippo Roian offguard. In terms of consequentiality, it wasn't Belarus's Vladimir Kopat scoring the late quarter-final winner on Sweden's Tommy Salo at the 2002 Olympics. Yet it did put another nail in Italy's coffin. After lusty bellowing of "Radko Gudas!", the Czech fans bounced up and down in unison.
"Wow!" said Kubalik. "What a shot. I didn't see it, actually. I just came from the ice. But it was a rocket. I think it bounced from the ice. He always tries that every game. So I wasn't even surprised."
Frolik smartly went to the net with his stick on the ice and banged in a set-up from a pinching Michal Moravcik to give the Czechs a 3-0 lead at 12:07.
At 13:43, Jan Kovar converted a power play rebound to make it 4-0. And just 34 seconds later, Jaskin accepted a slick backhanded feed from Filip Chytil and scored with a laser from the slot.
Kubalik acknowledged having some sympathy for the Italians: "In those games, the first three goals are big. But then, when you're playing all the time in their zone, it's tough. My [Ambri-Piotta] teammate Diego Kostner is there and I felt a little bit bad for him, because he's probably the hardest-working guy I've ever met in my life. So he really wants to play, he really wants to skate, and he can't. It's tough to play without the puck."
Indeed, Italy's hopes for this game were now deader than Julius Caesar. The third period merely prolonged the inevitable.
With under four minutes to play, Voracek set up Simon on the doorstep for the 6-0 marker. Jaskin blitzed down left wing and knocked the water bottle off for the seventh goal at 17:42. Sixteen seconds later, Frolik added his second of the night on a centre point blast to round out the scoring.
Of course, blowouts like this don't necessarily portend a run to the final, as Frolik acknowledged: "You don't want to look too far ahead. You want to take it game by game. You want to keep improving every game. I think every game we do some little mistakes and we try to eliminate those mistakes, watching video and stuff."