For much of this tournament, Austria has shunned the ‘take each game as it comes’ mantra beloved of modern athletes. With the team’s focus firmly on survival in the Elite Pool, the showdown against Italy on Monday afternoon was always set to be the key game for Roger Bader’s men. But the roster selected to face the Czech Republic on Sunday was a surprise. Goalie Lukas Herzog was handed a World Championship debut, key forwards Michael Raffl, Konstantin Komarek and Peter Schneider were left out of the team, which went with – in effect – three lines against a full-strength Czech team.
"In games like this we just have to try to play our systems and prepare for the upcoming games," said Jakub Vrana. "We have a pretty good defence behind us and we're just trying to play our best hockey. It doesn't matter if we win 8-0 or 1-0, we just want to keep getting the wins and reach the quarter-finals in the best position we can.
"Right now we're looking pretty good but we have another tough game ahead against Switzerland."
Not surprisingly, the game proved pretty one-sided. The Czechs took the lead in the seventh minute when Radek Faksa potted his first of the tournament. Kolar outmuscled Lukas Haudum behind the net and found Faksa on the right-hand face-off spot. The Dallas Stars forward floated a wrister into the far corner and Austria already looked to be in trouble.
Kolar, who plays for Amur Khabarovsk in the KHL, has a bit of a stay-at-home reputation: that assist was the first of three points on a good night for him. "I don't often get my name among the scorers so every time I get a point I'm really happy," he admitted after the game. "But the most important is to keep winning games. We had a good game today, we skated well and we scored eight goals. I think everyone is happy."
Some Czech penalty trouble kept the game live. In total, Austria would see four penalty calls in their favour and would enjoy 85 seconds of 5-on-3 play. However, this did not lead to a flurry of chances for Pavel Francouz to deal with, while Herzog made a glove save to close the door on a Tomas Zohorna breakaway.
Amid those infractions, the Czechs grabbed a second goal when Radek Gudas spun the puck out wide left for Dominik Kubalik. The forward surged into the zone, forced his way inside Patrick Peter and produced a backhand finish to the top shelf to double the lead.
Then came the penalties. Tomas Repik got his second goal of the tournament during a 5-on-3 power play when Kubalik’s shot was deflected to Faksa and the Stars man slipped a pass behind his back for Repik to bang the puck into the empty net. Within a couple of minutes, and with another 5-on-3 situation unfolding, Herzog pulled off an acrobatic save to deny Milan Gulas but was powerless when the puck dropped for Michael Frolik to shoot home the fifth.
Frolik is enjoying life in Slovakia and currently sits second in the scoring race with 12 (6+6) points. "I guess I feel good," he said "I've got great teammates on my line in Voracek and Simon. Voracek is one of the best players in the NHL. We are buddies from when we were growing up. It's fun to be with him. He's a great player. We try to talk a lot before the games and make sure we're on the same page.
"It's been clicking so far, but still, the biggest challenge is coming. I think we've got a pretty good team coming up in Switzerland. It's going to be a good test for us before the quarter-finals. We want to finish strong in the group and make sure we are in the right spot."
Austria finally got back to equal strength on 34:18 and generated one opportunity late in the frame when a breakdown in the Czech defence saw Patrick Obrist bearing down on Francouz’s net. However, Radko Gudas got his stick down to disturb the shooter and Francouz made a comfortable save.
Repik was on the scoresheet again at the start of the third as the now-familiar sight of an unaccompanied Czech forward bearing down on the ill-protected Herzog resulted in a sixth goal. Kubalik’s pass released the Vityaz Podolsk forward and his finish clipped the underside of the bar with Herzog well beaten this time. Seconds later Repik was close to a hat-trick, but his rising shot was helped onto the bar by Herzog.
The 26-year-old Salzburg goalie was soon retrieving another puck from his net, though, as Kolar added a goal to his pair of assists. Herzog’s first appearance in the competition was beginning to unravel, and when Jakub Vrana shot under the goalie’s glove to make it 8-0 it was hard not to sympathise with a player suffering a baptism of fire. Vrana’s goal came from a misplaced Austrian pass in centre ice that opened up the defence yet again and invited the Czechs to advance and shoot at will.
Austria, chastened, called a time-out. Even if this game was gone, the tournament is still alive and tomorrow brings a vital relegation showdown against Italy. For Manuel Ganahl, going back to the bench was a chance to refocus on what needs to be done.
"Of course, we were not happy at all with the way we played the first two periods," he said. "So after the second intermission, we said, 'At least get one good period in where we do the good habits. Play simple. Don't make so many turnovers.' But we didn't manage to do that. It was really bad. I don't know what it was, eight or nine minutes, and I think it was a good time from the coach to just remind us it's important to get the good habits in for tomorrow."
Belarusian referee Max Sidorenko had to be helped from the ice after falling awkwardly following an accidental collision with a Czech player. Happily the official was able to return to the game almost immediately.
The closing stages brought another Czech penalty and Austria came close to a consolation goal when Markus Schlacher's centre point shot was deflected narrowly past Francouz's post. However, the action ended as much of it had played out, with the Czechs in control and Austria struggling to gain possession of the puck.
"We're playing with a lot of confidence," Kolar concluded. "We're scoring a lot of goals in this tournament, not just today. We've got a great bunch of forwards who have come from the NHL. They bring a lot of experience and it's really lifted our game."