History will be made on the ice in Chomutov today as either the Czech or Hungarian women’s national team will qualify for the Winter Olympics for the first time in history. The significance is not lost on either team.
“This was a big win and we’ll enjoy it tonight and get a good night’s sleep,” Hungarian captain Fanni Gasparics said after Saturday’s win over Norway. “Tomorrow will be an even bigger game – maybe the biggest ever for Hungarian women’s hockey – because it’s our team’s big dream to go to the Olympics.”
“The Olympics can be interesting for the people around you, but getting there is a long, difficult journey for an athlete,” said Karolina Erbenova, the only player on either roster who has experienced being there, though not as a hockey player. “We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves because a very important game awaits us on Sunday. We can’t be thinking about the Olympics yet. We have to earn our spot there as a team and there’s still work to do.”
In both of the last two Winter Olympics, these two teams came as close to qualifying without making it to Sochi or PyeongChang, both finishing second in their respective final-round qualifying groups in 2013 and 2017.
“We were not so structured then,” Gasparics said about her first Olympic qualifying experience in 2013. “In the last few years, we’ve taken some big steps forward.”
The teams both enter this game having achieved the maximum six points from their first two games. The Czechs opened that up with a 3-1 victory over Norway and followed it up with a convincing 16-0 rout of Poland. Hungary has had to come back to win both games, allowing the first goal to Poland before winning 11-1, then overcoming a 3-1 second-period deficit to Norway to win 5-3.
The Czechs are led by six points from Katerina Mrazova, five by defender Aneta Tejralova and four each from captain Alena Mills, Noemi Neubauerova and Klara Hymlarova. For Hungary, Mira Seregely, Emma Kreisz, Alexandra Huszak and defender Taylor Baker all have four points.
“All of our goals are the result of playing as a team and sticking to our system, so it doesn’t really matter who is the last one to touch the puck,” said Mrazova, the tournament’s leading scorer.
In goal, Klara Peslarova and Viktorie Svejdova have both played and won once but there’s no doubt who will start this game for the Czechs, with Peslarova – nine days shy of her 25th birthday – considered among the top female goalies in the world. Another 1996-born goalie, Aniko Nemeth, has played every minute of Hungary’s first two games and will start for a third straight time today.
The fact that these two teams enter this game with a trip to Beijing is hardly a surprise. They are the two highest ranked teams in the group that also includes Norway and Poland, and the only two that currently compete in the top division of the World Championships.
The two teams met in the group stage of last August’s Women’s World Championship in Calgary, with the Czech Republic building up a 4-0 lead before Hungary battled back with a goal in the last minute of both the second and third periods. The Czechs outshot Hungary 36-13 in a game that got a bit chippy in the third period.
The Czechs will bring an almost identical team to this game. The only difference is the absence of Tereza Vanisova – who had two points in the game – and the inclusion of Karolina Erbenova, who was one of the last players cut from the World Championship team.
“This is a great experience for me personally,” said Erbenova, who went to three Olympics as a speed skater and took home a bronze medal from PyeongChang before switching to shorter blades. “I switched from one world to another very quickly. I went for it and I'm glad I’ve been able to meet all the girls here. Hockey is my first love, my number one sport. It's an amazing experience, I’m enjoying every minute here.”
Hungary’s roster has seen a bit more turnover, with the notable absences of sisters Lili and Hanna Pinter, among others. That has resulted in several younger players stepping into bigger roles, notably Kreisz and Seregely.
“After the World Championship, we had some players retire and we’re dealing with a couple of injuries, which has really tested the depth of our senior program,” said Hungarian head coach Lisa Haley. “So we’ve got a few teenaged players here this week gaining a ton of experience and some of them have had some big moments.”
“Today we are a better team than we were in Canada two months ago,” said Czech head coach Tomas Pacina. “We learned a lot from our experience there and we’ve improved as players, as coaches, as people and as one collective unit. We’re ready.”
Knowing the team on the other side, there should be few suprises this game.
“They have some very skilled forwards so we have to keep our structure and pay attention to our defensive play, and when we get the puck we have to capitalize on our offensive chances as well because we have to score to win the game,” said Gasparics.
“We’re really looking forward to it,” said Mrazova. “We know it won’t be an easy game, but we’ll give it everything we’ve got. We believe in ourselves and I think we can do it.”
“They’re a tremendously skilled group and they play well with the puck,” said Haley. “We need to make sure that we stick to our system defensively and look for opportunities to counter. I’m sure they’ll get more chances than we will, but it’s just a matter of burying the chances that we get keeping the game tight.”
"I feel very good about it, but we know that Hungary will be a fierce and very difficult opponent,” said Pacina. “We’ll approach it the same way we approached the (World Championship) quarter-finals against Finland. We want to win and that’s how we’ll approach it.”