With 1:27 left, Jan Rutta scored the winner into an empty net as the Czech Republic downed Switzerland 5-4 to wrap up their group stage on Tuesday. The Swiss bravely went for it with the extra attacker, but the loss leaves them in fourth place in Group B. They will travel to Kosice to meet the first-place team in Group A in Thursday's quarter-finals.
Czech captain Jakub Voracek and Dominik Simon set the pace with a goal and two assists apiece. Michael Frolik added a goal and an assist, and Dominik Kubalik also tallied for the Czech Republic, which now has 18 points. The Czechs, who only lost one group game (3-0 to Russia), will await the Sweden-Russia result that determines their quarter-final fate. They will most likely finish in second place.
"For us, it's been a great first seven games so far, but we'll see what's going to happen on Thursday," said Voracek. "I think we've done everything to make it happen to stay in Bratislava."
After winning their first four games, the Swiss have dropped three straight hard-fought contests against medal contenders, including a 4-3 loss to Sweden and a 3-0 loss to Russia.
"At the end, I thought we showed really good character," said Swiss captain Raphael Diaz. "In the third period, I think this is how we have to play, how we have to make pressure, how we have to play offensively and defensively as well. We go to the quarter-finals with good feelings."
With Switzerland outshooting the Czechs 40-26, goalie Patrik Bartosak was full value for his third win in a clash that was as entertaining as it was penalty-filled.
For Switzerland, Tristan Scherwey stepped up with two goals and an assist. Lukas Frick also scored, and Nino Niederreiter added a goal in his 2019 debut. Lino Martschini contributed three assists.
"It’s not easy to fly overseas and play the next day," said Niederreiter, who totalled 53 points for the Minnesota Wild and Carolina Hurricanes this season. "But it was an important game and we had a chance to move up and we needed to win by two goals. We got the first one, but we were maybe a little too excited and tried to get the second one right away and gave up too many chances."
Moments after Swiss starter Reto Berra stoned Dominik Kubalik in tight, Frick got the Swiss on the board just 2:13 in. Frick cruised into the high slot and one-timing Martschini’s feed from behind the net past a surprised Bartosak.
Things got testy early. Voracek got his stick up on Christoph Bertschy and angry words were exchanged as the fans whistled derisively.
"I hate diving in hockey," Voracek said. "I'm not a big fan of that. And unfortunately, it happens too often. I think if the referees would start calling the slashing and hooking right away, instead of waiting for the player's reaction, if he's going to make himself look like he's hurt, then it wouldn't happen."
Halfway through the period, a melee erupted along the boards in the Swiss end, and everyone got involved. After a long discussion with the officials, Dmitrij Jaskin was sent off for roughing, while Noah Rod served Berra’s roughing minor. To amplify the delay, the glass between the benches needed fixing. Regardless, the hyper-enthusiastic fans of both teams continued to howl with abandon.
"There were a lot of battles around the net, but that’s hockey," said Bartosak. "If it wasn’t there, there wouldn’t be the passion. The fans love it and we love it."
The Czechs appeared to have better legs after the delay. When Scherwey dumped top-scoring Czech defenceman Filip Hronek with a cross-check, coach Milos Riha’s men were prepared to capitalize. Voracek tied it up on an odd-man power-play rush at 12:21. Jan Kovar set him up with a cross-ice pass and he snapped the puck past the lunging Berra.
Just 38 seconds into the second period, the Czechs grabbed a 2-1 lead. Voracek fed Dominik Simon rushing toward Berra’s net, and as Simon was hauled down by the backchecking Gaetan Haas, the puck went in off his outstretched left skate. The goal was waved off initially, but Riha challenged it on the grounds that there was no goaltender interference, and after video review, it counted.
At 6:20, Frolik got the Czech fans hopping and chanting ecstatically with his 3-1 tally. Sprung loose by Voracek, he busted in off left wing, head up all the way, and coolly slid a backhander through Berra's pads. Voracek (3+12=15) and Frolik (7+6=13) are both vying for the tournament scoring crown.
"When you turn over the puck over, it's going to go back really quick," said Diaz. "We saw that a few times against the Russians and a few times today against the Czechs. They turn the puck really quick and we have to be smart."
Looking for a momentum-changer, Swiss coach Patrick Fischer yanked Berra in favour of backup Robert Mayer. Putting in the 29-year-old Mayer, who was born in the Czech Republic, for his first action of these Worlds paid immediate dividends.
The Swiss made it 3-2 just 29 seconds later. Again, it was Martschini doing his best Wayne Gretzky imitation, as he found Scherwey out front for a shot that deflected in off Jaskin in the crease.
Uncowed, the Czechs regained their two-goal lead with the teams at 4-on-4. Simon snared the puck in the corner and backhanded it to an unguarded Kubalik in front. The 2019 Swiss scoring champ with HC Ambri-Piotta made no mistake for his fourth of the tournament at 8:27.
In the third period, the Swiss came out with guns blazing. They made it interesting with Scherwey's second of the game at 1:47. When Yannick Weber jumped up into the right corner and skimmed a pass to the SC Bern forward in the slot, he zapped it past the Czech netminder's blocker.
"I think in the third period they had nothing to lose," said Voracek. "So they put everything in it. It was hard to play against them in the third period."
Niederreiter, who totalled 53 points for the Minnesota Wild and Carolina Hurricanes this season, won silver in 2013 and 2018, got the 4-4 equalizer with 3:41 left in the third period, going hard to the net to convert after Roman Josi put the puck in front. But that was as far as the Swiss rally would go.
Niederreiter won silver in 2013 and 2018, and Vincent Praplan was scratched to make room for him. Diaz said: "If you can have a player like Nino in your team, it's unbelievable, right? He's big, he's strong, he's a great guy. He pushes the team. He helps us a lot, goes in front of the net, and it's really nice to have him in our team."
Before this decade, the Czechs dominated their rivalry with the Swiss. In the 2010’s, it’s been very even. This result improved the Czech record since 2010 to four wins and four losses. However, it’s worth noting that the Czechs required a penalty shootout to triumph in both 2015 and 2018. The Swiss, en route to silver, beat the Czechs 2-1 in the 2013 quarter-finals.
Swiss fans who are concerned about their team's recent inability to collect points can take solace from what happened prior to the 2018 silver-medal run. In their last three games, the Swiss lost 4-3 to Russia and 5-3 to the Swedes before beating France 5-1 to squeak into the quarter-finals.
In other words, it was hardly one glorious triumph after another. Narratives change completely with a quarter-final victory, and that's what Switzerland will be banking on this year too.
Veteran Swiss forward Andres Ambuhl, who has played 106 career World Championship games, said: "We did it last year too, had to change locations [by going to Herning], so that’s not the end of things. You always want to finish as high as you can, but the biggest thing is to make the quarter-finals and we did that. So we’ll see what happens."