"It’s good for us, a bronze medal after 10 years," said an ecstatic David Sklenicka. "It’s amazing for us, it’s unbelievable!"
Boston Bruins superstar David Pastrnak led the third-period rally with a hat trick and David Kampf scored twice. Captain Roman Cervenka got his fifth goal to extend his lead atop the tournament scoring race with 17 points. Jiri Cernoch and Jiri Smejkal also tallied for the Czechs, who trailed 2-0 and 3-1 in the first period.
The relief and happiness for Czech players, coaches, management, and fans is huge. The Central European nation's 2012 bronze medal also came on Finnish ice in Helsinki. David Krejci, then 26, scored a first-period goal set up by Ales Hemsky that stood up as the winner as Czechia edged Finland 3-2.
"It’s going to be a big thing for [Czechia] and for the young kids who want to play hockey," said Kari Jalonen, Czechia's Finnish head coach. "These players are their idols and now they see them win this medal at a World Championship. Hopefully this will give a big push for the juniors too."
With just seven games played, Pastrnak now shares the 2022 goals lead (seven) with Pierre-Luc Dubois ahead of the Finland-Canada gold medal game.
For the disappointed Americans, Karlson Kuhlman had a pair of first-period goals, and Adam Gaudette added his team-leading sixth goal.
The Americans earned four bronze medals at the last eight tournaments (2013, 2015, 2018, 2021), and have six in total since the IIHF instituted the playoff system in 1992. However, they have never played in the gold medal game, and last won the World Championship tournament in 1933.
It was a gritty effort, as the Americans again played with just four regular defencemen: captain Seth Jones, Nate Schmidt, Andrew Peeke, and Luke Hughes. The U.S. blue line has been decimated by injuries, COVID-19 issues, and departures due to family issues.
"I’m tired," said Schmidt. "These last four days we were down to four defencemen, and it was tiring. We had a couple forwards come and help us out, which isn’t an easy thing to do, especially on the world stage with some of the best players in the world and playing a position you’re not used to. I don’t envy that position."
"It was a learning experience," added Sam Lafferty, who filled in on defence. "It felt pretty comfortable overall but the team needed me to play defence, so I was able to play D."
Shots on goal favoured the Czechs 33-24.
Substituting backup Marek Langhamer to start the second period paid off. Langhamer, who plays in Tampere for Ilves, looked comfortable and confident and was named the Czech Player of the Game, allowing just one goal on 16 shots.
Bruins netminder Jeremy Swayman, who backstopped the U.S. to within one goal of the final in the 4-3 semi-final loss to host Finland, recorded 25 saves.
This was the most goals ever scored by the Czechs versus the U.S. at the Worlds in the era of Czechia. Czechoslovakia beat the U.S. 11-2 in both 1981 and 1985.
"It got out of hand a little bit," said Jones. "Going 3-2 into the third period, we were in a good spot. We’re not where we wanted to be. We gave up six goals in the third period. Obviously it happened against a high-score offence."
The Americans opened the scoring at 9:33, profiting from a fortunate bounce. Off a faceoff in the Czech end, Andrew Peeke’s shot from the blue line deflected off the skate of defender Michael Kempny, enabling Kuhlman to put the puck into the open side.
At 12:14, Gaudette gave the U.S. a 2-0 lead on the power play. T.J. Tynan fed Matthew Boldy down low and he centred it to the Ottawa Senators forward, who fired it home. It was a mirror image of the late third-period goal Gaudette scored against Finland.
Swayman stopped Matej Blumel on a partial break with under seven minutes left in the first period. But the Czechs persevered and cut the gap to 2-1. Jakub Flek came out of the corner with the puck and fed Cernoch, who took the puck off his skate and fired it through Swayman’s five-hole despite being surrounded by three U.S. checkers.
Showing great anticipation, Kuhlman scored shorthanded with just 13 seconds left in the opening frame. The U.S. broke out of its zone, and after Kuhlman pivoted to send a backhanded pass to Sam Lafferty, he hustled to the net to convert a subsequent feed from Nate Schmidt.
Kuhlman, a fourth-year NHLer who was acquired by the Seattle Kraken off waivers from the Boston Bruins, isn't known as a big scorer. The former University of Minnesota-Duluth captain had just two assists in his nine previous games in Finland. In 100 career NHL games, Kuhlman has nine goals and 14 assists. Unfortunately, his hot first period was as good as it got for America.
At 12:12 of the second period, the Czechs made it a one-goal game. Sklenicka's release from the left point hit Peeke in front, and as the U.S. rearguard struggled to find the puck at his feet, Smejkal banged the rebound past a surprised Swayman.
"Thank God our goal came there," said Smejkal. "That really helped us going into the third that we were down by just one goal."
The third period was wild. Just 51 seconds in, the Czechs drew even at 3-3. Peeke tried to clear the puck out on the right wall, but it barely got over the blue line, where Tomas Hertl and the linesman stood. Herlt got the puck to Pastrnak and he swooped into the faceoff circle to score on a quick release, using Peeke as his decoy.
"We switched the lines a little bit," Hertl said. "Me and Pasta, we played together a couple of times in summer hockey, so we found some chemistry and scored some goals. I know he’s one of the best goal-scorers in the NHL, so I just tried to find him and he can did the rest. It worked out and I’m just happy we won."
At 2:29, Cervenka gave Czechia its first lead of the game. Off a draw in the U.S. end, Krejci won it back to the Czech captain and he zipped it past Swayman's glove before the netminder could budge.
"After the second period we said in the locker room that we have 20 minutes and we have to put it all in," Cervenka said. "We scored in the beginning of the third and one goal came after another. We controlled the game and were better and faster and we made it."
With 5:18 left in the third period, Swayman stretched out to stop Smejkal's backhand deke on a shorthanded breakaway, but couldn't prevent Kampf from gobbling up the rebound for Czechia's sixth goal.
Kampf put the icing on the cake with an empty-netter at 18:08 as the Czechs rejoiced. Bordeleau spoiled Langhamer's unblemished performance 33 seconds later, but it hardly mattered.
"We were close to closing the tournament out in the right way and 20 minutes is what did us in," Schmidt said.
At 19:23, Pastrnak, set up by Hertl, completed his hat trick with a wicked power play one-timer, and ball caps were tossed on the ice. At the final buzzer, Jalonen's team flocked together behind the net to hop up and down with glee.
Jalonen received a big round of applause from the Finnish fans as he received his bronze medal from IIHF President Luc Tardif. Jalonen coached Finland to the silver medal at the 2016 Worlds in Moscow.
The Czechs have not won the gold medal since shocking a stacked Russian roster 2-1 in Cologne in 2010. So they'll now put gold on their must-do list when they take part in the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship (Tampere and Riga).
"I hope this can help us a lot for next season, and we can come back and earn the gold medal next year," said Sklenicka.