Czechia blanks Finns in shootout
by Lucas AYKROYD|10 MAY 2024
Czech assistant captain Ondrej Palat (L) and Finnish captain Mikael Granlund clash along the boards in Czechia's 1-0 tournament-opening shootout win in Prague.
In a tight and tense battle, Ondrej Kase notched the shootout winner as host Czechia nipped Finland 1-0 to open the 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Prague on Friday.

Kase, an ex-NHLer and assistant captain with Litvinov, stickhandled in, deked and tallied with a high backhand. Captain Roman Cervenka sealed the deal.

"I think it was a really good game for the defence," said veteran Czech rearguard Michal Kempny. "The building was loud and I think the fans were were loving it. So we're very thankful for their support and I'm glad that we got them the win."

All night, the spotlight was squarely on the goalies in the sense of "who'll blink first?" Czechia's Lukas Dostal, a two-time World Junior netminder who played a career-high 44 NHL games with Anaheim this season, had 21 saves. He allowed no goals on four Finnish shootout attempts. Harri Sateri, the starter for EHC Biel-Bienne and Finland’s 2022 Olympic gold medal team, was the busier of the two with 27 saves.

Radko Gudas, Dostal's NHL teammate with Anaheim, said: "He's amazing. He showed up throughout the whole year in Anaheim and I have all the confidence in the world in him."

The Czechs and Finns have a long IIHF history together, including Czech gold-medal wins in 1999 (Lillehammer) and 2001 (Hanover). Coach Radim Rulik’s host team is hungry to break a gold-medal drought stretching back to 2010, while Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen aspires to add his fourth gold medal (2011, 2019, 2022) in his final go-round behind a Worlds bench.

This game raises reasonable questions about both teams' ability to produce offensively. The Finns barely generated any good looks in the first half.

"In the first two periods, our offensive game wasn't so good but I think we got better in the third," said Finland's Hannes Bjorninen, known for scoring the 2022 Olympic gold-medal winner. "In overtime, we got our chances, but today we didn't put those in and our opponent scored in the shootout. That was a really tight game."

As at the 2004 and 2015 Worlds in the Czech capital, the ambience was ebullient from puck drop onward, with drums pounding and “Cesi!” chants aplenty. Giant cartoon puck logos with emotion-laden faces adorned the end zones and lighting effects arena-wide heightened the drama. It was a sensory treat for the packed house.

In a penalty-free first period, the Czechs dominated the play territorially but had few golden opportunities. Matej Stransky nearly opened the scoring when he cut in off the right side boards for a close-range backhander, and blueliner Libor Hajek tested Sateri just before the buzzer. Shots favoured Czechia 10-1 through 20 minutes.

"Our coaches did a pretty good job with pre-scouting," Gudas said. "We know exactly how they play. They play a little boring hockey. I think we were pretty good defensively as well."

At 18:18 of the second period, Ondrej Palat thought he'd given the home faithful what they'd been craving with the first goal. The 33-year-old two-time Stanley Cup champion with Tampa Bay, who now plays for New Jersey, centred the puck out front to linemate David Tomasek, whose attempt fluttered back to Palat at the goal line. He got it high over Sateri's left pad.

But not so fast. Believing Tomasek, planted in the crease, had interfered with Sateri, Jalonen used his coach's challenge, and the goal was overturned after a video review.

To start off the third period, the Finns failed to connect with long drives on their first power play after the rugged Gudas was nabbed for tripping. The checking-fest continued. HIFK Helsinki's Juha Jaaska, a 26-year-old Worlds rookie, created a nice chance when he cut toward the middle and forced Dostal to make a glove save, but still the deadlock persisted.

The Finns started off overtime with a 4-on-3 power play as Gudas was serving a holding minor that carried over. With captain Mikael Granlund running the show from the half-wall, there was pressure but nothing to show for it. Sateri then stared down Tomasek and his linemate David Kampf on great chances.

About generating more offence, Kempny said: "We were working on it for the whole camp. We've just got to stick with our system and keep going. If we stick together as a group, I really believe that we're going to score some more goals."

The last time the Czechs scored on the Finns in regulation time was in a 4-3 shootout win at the 2017 Worlds in Paris. Finland won the last two meetings 1-0 in 2021 (Riga) and 3-0 in 2022 (Tampere).

Fans eager to see how Finnish prodigy Konsta Helenius will fare against men will have to wait a bit longer. The draft-eligible 17-year-old was one of two forwards not dressed for the opener, along with 31-year-old Ahti Oksanen. Helenius, who had 36 points this Liiga season with Jukurit, registered seven assists at the just-completed U18 Worlds as the Finns came fifth on home ice.

The pyro-laden opening ceremonies were a spectacle unto themselves.

Illuminated columns and plaque-holding skaters at centre ice celebrated the 16 competing national teams. Jaromir Jagr, the greatest Czech forward of all time and still active with Kladno at age 52, made a cameo, giving the thumbs-up in between Bob and Bobek. Czech pop star Lenny also belted out her 2016 hit “Hell.o.”

IIHF President Luc Tardif officially declared the 2024 tournament open and joined Czech Ice Hockey Association President Alois Hadamczik in welcoming the fans.
Czechia vs Finland - 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship