Can the Czechs upset the U.S. too?
by Lucas Aykroyd|29 DEC 2020
The U.S.'s Trevor Zegras and the Czech Republic's Radek Kucerik meet again on Tuesday as the Czechs vie for another win at the 2021 World Juniors in Edmonton.
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images

The last time the Czech Republic defeated the U.S. at the World Juniors, defenceman David Jiricek – the youngest player on coach Karel Mlejnek’s Edmonton roster– was eight years old. All-star goalie Petr Mrazek made 52 saves in that surprise 5-2 victory on 30 December, 2011.

Since then, the U.S. has beaten the Czechs six straight times by an aggregate of 35-8.

So if an ultra-passionate Czech fan, buoyed by Sunday’s 2-0 upset over 2020 silver medalist Russia, is tempted to bet his life savings on a win over the Americans in Tuesday’s first game, he might want to stop and take a deep breath.

That said, an optimistic and only slightly superstitious Czech fan might point out that the previous 5-2 upset also took place on Edmonton ice. And the Czechs took a point from the Americans in their last meeting, a 4-3 overtime loss in Ostrava (30 December, 2019), where Cole Caufield notched the winner.

Out of the nine remaining preliminary-round games, the U.S.-Czech matchup holds the greatest possibility for another upset. That’s what makes this interesting.

If the Czechs, who finished a disappointing seventh on home ice last year, want to stun an American team that features nine NHL first-round picks (versus none for Mlejnek’s crew), good habits are a must.

“Everything begins in practice,” said returning Czech goalie Lukas Parik, who posted a 29-save shutout against Russia. “If we want to win our games, we have to be great in practice and play like one guy.”

Taking the body, taking away the middle of the ice, and blocking shots are all tactics the Czechs employed to perfection in their win over Russia. Indeed, a big Martin Lang shot-block in the third period led to the 2-0 goal.
“I don’t think we had any good, Grade-A chances,” admitted Russia’s Yan Kuznetsov. “Even though we always had possession of the puck, they had more Grade-A chances.:

The question is whether the Czechs, facing the Americans, can muster up the same emotional intensity they used to win one-on-one battles and stifle KHL-trained NHL first-rounders like Rodion Amirov and Vasili Podkolzin. That emotion bubbled over in the end when they jumped up and down exuberantly before storming the ice for a celebratory heap on top of Parik.

The smart money says no. It’s not surprising that when the Americans and Czechs square off, there is little bad blood and American skill usually rules the day.

In the history of IIHF competition at every level, there has been only one U.S.-Czech Republic gold medal game. Paced by Auston Matthews’ two goals, the U.S. captured the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship with a 5-2 win in Lappeenranta, Finland.

That memory doesn’t exactly get Czech blood pumping the way (let’s say) a highlight reel from the 1-0 victory over Russia in the 1998 Olympic final does. Going even further back, the bitter Cold War rivalry between the Czechs and Russians still carries a certain resonance, even if today’s kids are better-versed in the finer points of Houseparty and TikTok than Holocek and Tretiak.

Another reality to keep in mind: not all Czech World Junior teams are created equal, while the Americans bring a gold-medal contender every year.

The Czech team at the 2018 World Juniors in Buffalo looked far superior to this year’s edition. It boasted top NHL prospects like Martin Necas, whose 11 points tied him with tournament MVP Casey Mittelstadt for the overall lead, and Filip Zadina, whose seven goals placed him second only to Kiefer Bellows (nine).
However, when the Czechs battled those host Americans for the bronze medal, the U.S. won 9-3. This was the most lopsided bronze medal game since Sweden’s 11-4 thrashing of Switzerland in 2010.

So on Tuesday, the Czechs should put up a better fight than they did in their opening 7-1 loss to Russia. But unless they get a full-fledged impersonation of Petr Mrazek between the pipes and some puck luck paired with smart physicality, they’re unlikely to beat the stacked Americans.