Jakub Vrana led the way with two goals as the Czech Republic defeated Sweden 5-2 in the marquee evening matchup on Day One in Bratislava. The result cuts Sweden's World Championship winning streak short at 17 games.
"They play great system hockey, but I think we played better," said Czech forward Filip Chytil. "We scored more goals, so we're happy for that."
The Tre Kronor quest for a third straight world title is off to a slightly rocky start. Sweden hadn't lost a game at this tournament since falling 4-3 to the U.S. on 8 May 2017 in Cologne.
"It’s only the first game," said Sweden's William Nylander, the 2017 tournament MVP. "We’ve got a lot of time to get better."
Dominik Kubalik and Jan Kovar chipped in a goal and an assist apiece. Michael Frolik got the eventual third-period winner and captain Jakub Voracek added two helpers for the Czechs. They last won gold in 2010 and last medaled in 2012 (bronze).
"Every tournament we want to win a medal, but the last couple years that didn’t happen," said Czech forward Michal Repik. "I think we have a good team here and tonight we beat a very good team, the defending champion, but we have to see what happens until the end of the group. It’s all about getting to that quarter-final, anything can happen there."
Patric Hornqvist and Oskar Lindblom replied for Sweden.
"It was a hard game," Hornqvist said. "They were a little better than us in the first and third. They got that early goal in the third and then we couldn't get back."
Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the legendary 2006 Olympic gold medalist who backstopped his nation to the title in Cologne in 2017, got the call for the champs. Patrik Bartosak, who was on last year’s Olympic roster but did not appear in net, made his IIHF World Championship debut after recording the Czech Extraliga’s best save percentage for the second consecutive year with Vitkovice. Shots were even at 32 apiece.
"The game was a bit like when we played them in the Czech Republic last week [a 3-0 Czech win in Brno]," said Dmitrij Jaskin. "We looked good early in the game, and then they got back into it. Tonight our goalie did a great job to keep us in the game."
The teams got off to a fast-paced, physical start. With 8,723 on hand, it was a hyped-up atmosphere at Ondrej Nepela Arena. Competing chants from Tre Kronor and Narodni tym fans resounded, although certainly the latter had the advantage in volume and numbers.
The Czechs drew first blood at 1:55. From the left faceoff circle, Kubalik sent the puck back to Vrana, and he surprised Lundqvist with a one-timer along the ice.
Coach Milos Riha's men kept storming. A kneeling “King Henrik” had to be sharp to foil Voracek’s backhand in close. Lundqvist’s rebound control wasn’t picture-perfect, but he held his mates in there.
At 3:01, Lindblom made it 2-1 on the first Swedish power play, tipping Erik Gustafsson’s rising centre point drive past Bartosak. This was also the first career Worlds goal for the 22-year-old Philadelphia Flyers winger.
Just when the Czechs seemed to be getting some wind in their sails again, Pettersson came close when he redirected Hornqvist’s pass on the rush, but was stopped by Bartosak. The Czech goalie also came across to rob Lindblom on another chance. The teams got testier with scrums between whistles.
With 3:24 left in the middle frame, Jan Kovar circled the Swedish net and found Kubalik with a brilliant cross-ice feed, which he slammed past Lundqvist to make it 2-2. The building went bananas.
"It’s wonderful to play for your country when the fans are cheering like that," said Repik. "They were great all game. You can them hear singing the national anthem after the game. It’s awesome."
Just 36 seconds into the third, the Czechs retook the lead. Frolik, capitalizing on a Swedish defensive gong show, initially set up captain Jakub Voracek in front. Dominik Simon got a second crack at it before Frolik fired it home. The Swedes challenged the goal, claiming a falling Simon had interfered with Lundqvist, but the goal stood.
"I think we made some poor mistakes that cost us," said Pettersson. "I think on their third goal I missed the marking on Voracek in front of the net and there it was, a game-winning goal. It’s just small mistakes that cost us."
"It’s a tough call," added Nylander. "He’s lying in the crease but I don’t know, it’s a really hard call."
Nearing the six-minute mark, Lundqvist made a stunning save, blocking the puck with his glove before it could trickle inside his left post. With Sweden pushing for the equalizer, Pettersson showed off his extraordinary creativity again, rushing over the blue line to make a drop pass by kicking the puck back with his right skate.
The Swedes were not pleased when Simon's high stick to the face of Dennis Rasmussen went unpenalized. Just moments later, Vrana got loose with the teams at 4-on-4, accepting Filip Hronek's long pass and streaking over the blue line to snipe one high past Lundqvist's stick side at 15:50.
Swedish coach Rikard Gronborg pulled Lundqvist for the extra attacker, but Jan Kovar scored into the empty net with 55 seconds left to round out the scoring at 5-2. Pushing and shoving marred the dying moments, but the Czech fans were in part mode.
In their last World Championship meeting, Sweden defeated the Czechs 3-2 on 6 May 2018 in the group stage in Copenhagen. Their last playoff meeting was a Swedish 3-0 win in the 2014 bronze medal game in Minsk. The nations have only met once in a gold medal game, with Sweden prevailing 4-0 in Riga in 2006.
The Czechs are back at it on Saturday night versus Norway, while Sweden faces Italy on Sunday.
"I hope this can give us a confidence boost," Repik said. "It should. They are a good team. We’re playing good right now, but we don’t want to be too high. We gotta play confident, but we gotta respect our opponents as well and focus. Now we can celebrate a little bit. Then we focus for another game tomorrow against Norway."