Despite the relative inexperience on the team, there was a lot of optimism in the Czech Republic about this year’s IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. After years of the seeing core of the Czech national team slowly aging over the years, now was the time for young players to shine. Fans were particularly excited about the assembled top line of team captain Jan Kovar centring 25-year-old NHL wingers Jakub Vrana and Dominik Kubalik.
But after two losses and one overtime win in the team’s first three games, frustration with the team and the top line was beginning to set in.
“We had fun as a line, but it wasn’t a perfect performance,” Kovar said after the second game, a 5-2 loss to Switzerland. “In the third period, the coach has already broken us up. We'll see how it goes. We’re the first line, so we should play better and help the team more.”
The Czechs were in danger of falling into a desperate situation in their fourth game against Sweden, trailing 2-0 after two periods. But the big trio sparked a third-period comeback, with three goals – two on the power play – in a span of 7:07. Kovar scored the tying goal and assisted on the winner.
“Our first line helped us last game as well, and obviously Jakub Vrana’s first goal turned the whole game around,” said Czech head coach Filip Pesan. “That’s why they get the big ice time.”
“I don't think it was about tactics anymore, but rather about continuing to believe,” said Kovar. “We knew we were starting with a power play that was very important. We scored a goal in it, which encouraged us a lot, and we started to play better.”
Moments after Vrana’s goal, Kovar very nearly tied it up. He had goaltender Adam Reideborn beaten, but with his shot headed toward the open net, defenceman Jonathan Pudas reached in with his stick and saved the shot on the goal line.
“I thought it was going to be a goal. Suddenly a stick appeared out of nowhere, and I hit it,” Kovar described. “It’s a good thing we scored a goal soon after and didn't have to worry about it.”
That goal was scored by Kovar on another power play, taking a pass in the slot from Kubalik and one-timing it home.
“It was kind of like survival mode at the end,” said Kovar. “We were pretty strong defensively, blocking shots and that was the key to the victory.
“Knowing that we were leading at the end, we did everything we could to keep the shots from getting through. It worked out for us, then at the end (Jakub Flek) got on his horse and scored a goal into the empty net.”
At 31, Kovar is the second-oldest player on the roster after alternate captain Tomas Zohorna, and a veteran of six World Championships and the 2018 Winter Olympics. He’s also coming off a fantastic season where he led Switzerland’s National League regular season and playoffs in scoring, led EV Zug to its second championship after 1998 and was voted MVP.
Jan and his older brother, current KHL and former Czech national team goaltender Jakub Kovar, hail from Pisek, but from the age of 15, Jan was mostly connected to the club Skoda Plzen, with which he started as a pro.
He played in the KHL with Metallurg Magnitogorsk from 2013 to 2018, where was part of two Gagarin Cup championship teams. While in Magnitogorsk, Kovar played for head coach Mike Keenan, who more than once sang the Czech’s praises, and said he’d be a good fit for an NHL team.
In 2018, it seemed Kovar finally had the chance. He earned a try-out with the Boston Bruins and in 12 games with their AHL affiliate in Providence and registered 10 points. It seemed a contract with the Bruins was imminent, and then suddenly Kovar was on his way back to Europe. He finished that 2018/19 campaign with hometown Plzen, and for the last two seasons, he has played in Zug.
In an exclusive interview with hokej.cz six weeks ago, Kovar said: “I don’t regret the decision to choose Switzerland over the KHL. I do regret that I didn’t succeed in America before Switzerland, so that question sort of has two answers.”
Kovar had an exit clause in his Zug contract this summer that would have allowed him to go to the KHL, but it was announced a few days ago that he has waived that clause and will remain in Switzerland for two more seasons. Zug fans couldn’t be more thrilled.
“Jan is the driving force behind the team and sets an example both on the ice and in the locker room. With its presence, it also improves its teammates,” Zug general manager Reto Klay said in a club-issued press release.
But for now, Kovar’s attention is on the World Championship.
Among the many topics that came up in Thursday night’s post-game press conference was the stoic expression that is always on the face of Coach Pesan, regardless of the situation.
“People don’t see what’s going on inside,” said Kovar. “It’s kinda like a mask, the emotions are definitely there.
“We certainly don’t have a problem with that. Just because a coach isn’t always excited doesn't mean he doesn’t have emotions. He shows them to us.”
At this point, it now looks like the Czechs control their own destiny. Yes, they still have only five points in four games, but their three toughest Group A opponents are now in their rear-view mirror. Seven out of nine points from their three remaining games should be enough to advance, and looking at their opponents – Great Britain, Denmark and Slovakia – that seems doable.
But Kovar doesn’t want to take anything for granted.
“We have to control the euphoria,” said Kovar. “We won an important game but three more are waiting for us. We can see for ourselves that the results of this tournament are different. We have to play every game the way we played today, and in the end we’ll see if it’s enough.”