Host climbs to top of Group A
by Andy POTTS|17 MAY 2024
Czechia's Ondrej Kase celebrates after converting a penalty shot during the first period of his team's victory over Austria.
The Austrian fairy tale took a slightly grim turn on Friday night when the 2024 IIHF World Championship's surprise package fell to a shut-out loss against Czechia.

The host nation, roared on by another passionate Prague crowd, produced a solid display to record a fourth victory and climb to the top of the Group A standings. In the process, the Czechs avenged a shoot-out loss in the countries' previous meeting in 2022, the only Austrian victory in the head-to-head series.

For goalie Petr Mrazek, a little uncertain against Norway, the shut-out was satisfying. So was the final score. "I'm very proud," he said. "We battled hard tonight. We knew it would be a difficult game because Austria played really well yesterday, and against Canada and Switzerland as well."

Austria's Dominique Heinrich was not too disheartened by the loss. "We played an alright game," he said. "We know the Czechs have a good team, they got some good chances and scored on those.

"But we have to keep our heads up. We know what our group can do. We don't like the loss, but we can still hold our heads high."

It wasn't entirely straightforward: Czechia took time to make a breakthrough and had to endure some difficulties early in the second period. But in the end the home team delivered a crowd-pleasing 4-0 verdict. It was the first time Austria failed to score in this year's tournament.

Austria's performances against Canada and Finland were the big talking point. However, the Czechs had no interest in allowing another upset and began the game on the front foot, pinning Austria into its own zone.

The Austrians are used to that and feel increasingly comfortable putting much of their effort into stifling higher ranked offence. Through 15 minutes the Czechs led 10-1 on shots and were getting closer to solving David Madlener in the Austrian net. For its part, Austria showed great discipline, refusing to be drawn into cheap penalties and frustrating the home team.

Things changed when Paul Stapelfelt crunched David Kampf into the boards. The crowd howled for a penalty, the officials said 'no' and the game acquired a chippy edge.

Amid the pushing and shoving, Ondrej Kase found himself clean through on Madlener’s net only for Clemens Unterweger to hook him back as he shaped to shoot. With 28 seconds on the clock, the Litvinov forward took the penalty shot himself and delivered the same forehand-backhand-shelf triple whammy they brought him success in the opening shoot-out against Finland. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

"In the game against the Swiss I tried something different and I didn't score," he said. "Tonight I spoke to the coaches, we talked about it and I was very excited to get the goal."

Down 1-0, Austria probably felt that there was little need for an immediate fix either. Throughout the competition we’ve seen resilience in Roger Bader’s team and, after erasing a five-goal Canadian lead, there’s nothing much to fear from trailing any rival by one. 

Indeed, a good chunk of the second period saw the Czechs more nervous than the Austrians. A Radko Gudas trip 20 seconds in put the visitor on the power play. There was no goal, but plenty of momentum. Czechia couldn’t rediscover its first-period fluency and the better chances fell to the team in white: Bernd Wolf’s stretch pass creating a great look for Marco Rossi, but Mrazek turned it away; Paul Huber just failed to connect with a wicked feed from Ali Wukovits with the net at his mercy.

Czechia’s best moment came not from its own play, but from a rare Austrian stumble. Dominik Kubalik caught Steven Strong in possession and moved in on goal, but Strong recovered well enough to steer his opponent away from the net.

Even under pressure, though, the Czechs defended sensibly. Treating Austria with the utmost respect, they shut down much of the offence.

"I think they played more of a trap after they went up," said Austria's Dominique Heinrich. "They have a really good team and they didn't give us the chances we got in our other games."

But late in the stanza a string of penalties gave the home team a four-on-three power play and that produced a second goal. Moving the puck swiftly around the Austrian zone, David Tomasek’s slap pass went dot-to-dot and invited Kubalik to laser a one-timer past Madlener.

A minute later it was 3-0. Jakub Flek raced past Baumgartner – hardly the most leaden-footed of players – and controlled his speed to slot a composed close-range finish into the net.

Early in the third period, a fourth Czech goal gave notice that Austria was not about to write another Cinderella story. Tomasek saw his first shot blocked, but Palat got it back for him to score at the second attempt.

After that, there was little left in Austria's tank for another memorable fightback. There was no disgrace in this performance after a week of epic effort, but there was never enough to upset the narrative of a Czech success tonight.