"I said before the tournament we have one of the best teams here," said elated Czech forward Jakub Brabenec. "One of the best Czech teams in 20 years. I believe."
Kulich, the 2022 first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, cut in off right wing and beat Swedish goalie Carl Lindbom with a quick shot to the stick side. The winning goal, Kulich's team-leading sixth of the tournament, completed a stunning twist of fate.
It was total elation for Czechia and pure heartbreak for Sweden. The Swedes were ahead 1-0 on Ludvig Jansson's second-period goal until David Jiricek scored the tying goal with 39 seconds left in the third period. David Spacek assisted on both Czech goals.
"It was amazing, all the emotions," said Czech forward Matyas Sapovaliv. "We were so happy. After 20 years for the Czech Republic, it will be amazing. We will see if it’s Canada or United States, but I’m excited. I’d probably laugh if you told me before the tournament we’d play for gold!"
On Thursday, Czechia will face the winner of the U.S.-Canada semi-final for gold, while the Swedes will seek some solace in the bronze medal game.
"I don’t know what happened," said Swedish defenceman Adam Engstrom. "We had a good game. We played well in the defensive zone but were unlucky with their first goal late in the third. But that’s life, so we’ll get ready and have a great game tomorrow. It’s an important game."
Coach Radim Rulik's Czechs suffered some brain cramps in this clash, like taking two delay-of-game penalties for flipping the puck over the glass in their own end. But they came through in the crunch.
Each of these nations has just two World Junior gold medals to its credit. Czechia won back to back titles in 2000 and 2001, while Sweden triumphed decades apart in 1981 and 2012.
Czechia hasn't won any World Junior medals since 2005’s bronze in Grand Forks, North Dakota. So a medal of any shade would be meaningful.
This was a highly anticipated goaltending duel between Lindbom and Czechia’s Tomas Suchanek, both of whom have excelled while playing every game for their countries. Final shots favoured Czechia 31-22.
The scoreless first period presaged a titanic defensive struggle. The Swedes clogged up the neutral zone and looked for the counterattack against the more dynamic, prolific Czechs.
"They are good at boxing out our players to give their goalie a clear view," said Sapovaliv. "They’re a good team."
Near the seven-minute mark, the best early chance went to Czechia’s Martin Rysavy, who beat Jansson wide and cut in with a close-range backhand that Lindbom denied.
The Czechs’ lone group-stage loss at these World Juniors was 3-2 to Sweden. Jansson, Sweden's scoring leader on defence, tallied the winner at 1:35 of overtime. He maintained his hot hand here.
In the second period, Jansson drew first blood at 1:39 with a heavy one-timer from the left side, set up by Elias Pettersson. Cheers increased when a fan in the crowd held up a sign: "We Love IKEA."
Swedish head coach Magnus Havelid used up his timeout to strategize late in a Juniorkronorna 5-on-3 that lasted 1:55, but the gambit didn't bear fruit. Sweden's power play has been as weak as its tournament-leading penalty kill has been effective in the Maritimes.
Eduard Sale nearly drew Czechia even about six minutes into the third period when, off a faceoff in the Swedish end, he rattled one off the cross bar from the bottom of the right faceoff circle.
Lindbom drew a huge ovation when he picked off a lightning wrister from Czech D-man David Jiricek with a glove save worthy of Grant Fuhr or Roberto Luongo.
Sweden hunkered down with some big shot-blocks as the Czechs pressed for the equalizer in the final minutes. However, Rulik pulled Suchanek for the extra attacker with less than three minutes left, and it paid off. Jiricek stepped into a huge one-timer that blew through Lindbom at 19:21 and exuberantly leaped into the Czech bench to whoop it up.
"It was difficult but it was just one goal we needed," said Sapovaliv. "We know it’s just one shot, and we kept believing. We’re so happy we won."
In overtime, Suchanek was a game-saver, opening the door for Kulich's heroics. He made a fantastic blocker save on Filip Bystedt, Sweden's leading scorer among forwards, in the opening minute. A few minutes later, the Czech netminder came up huge when Isak Rosen danced in for a solo chance and again when Leo Carlsson batted the puck out of the air on the rush.
"I think we were good in the third period," Engstrom said. "They didn’t create many chances but they got one goal. We still had good chances in the OT but they had one chance and scored on it."
The Czechs now have 35 goals, more than at any of their World Juniors except 1995 (43 goals in seven games). Whichever North American nation they face in the final, they'll need all the firepower they've got.