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Bouncing Czechs Too Much For Latvia

Posted By Dan Rakusan On Feb 20 2010 @ 7:18 pm In Czech Republic | 1 Comment

You have to give Latvia credit; they did not lay down and die, even when they went down 4-0 in the second period.  The game, at that point, looked to be heading towards a blowout, but a renewed commitment to defence propelled the Latvians and their immense throng of fans to within two of what looks to be a very strong Czech team.  I will admit, I fell in love with Latvia at the 2008-09 World Junior Hockey Championships, which I was priviledged to cover for SportsTalkBuzz.  They have a very strong and loud following of faithful fans who I came to know in Ottawa that year.  They are loud, boisterous, but also respectful and knowledgeable about the game.  It is a truly inspiring group, and one can not help but hope for good things to happen to their team, as the ensuing party would likely be a huge one.

Anyway, I digress…

The Czechs came out of the gates with one simple goal in mind:  Victory.  It did not take long to get things rolling, as David Krejci lit the lamp only 2 and a half minutes into the game, besting Latvian goaltender Edgars Masalskis on a two-on-one break with Martin Erat.  It only took another minute for Tomas Plekanec to bury his second of the tourney as he tipped a Marek Zidlicky shot into the Latvian cage.  At 5:07, Jaromir Jagr gave the Czechs a 3-0 lead, scoring what would eventually turn out to be the game-winning marker, his second of the tourney.  Tomas Kaberle stretched the lead to 4-0 at 6:33 of the second period, converting a nice pass from Patrik Elias.

But then, something changed in the game, as Latvia bore down and began playing the Czechs a lot closer.  The underdogs took away space, making it difficult for the Czechs to generate scoring chances, and Masalskis shut the door on the opportunities that did present themselves.  With 4:30 left in the second period, Kristaps Sotnieks broke the shutout, taking the puck as he exited the sin-bin and going in alone on Tomas Vokoun, who stood little chance of making the save.  Suddenly, Latvia was in the game…

The surging Latvians tallied another goal only 3 minutes later, as Girts Ankipans hit the mark on the powerplay, sending a fluttering puck through traffic and into the net.  But that's as close as they would come.  Vokoun made some excellent saves the rest of the game, and Patrik Elias scored an empty-netter late in the third to seal the second consecutive victory for the Czech Republic.  Vokoun finished with 16 saves compared to 35 for his Latvian counterpart.

The victory ensured the Czechs a berth in the quarter-finals on Wednesday, while the Latvians will play in a playoff qualification game.  Latvia will not likely play for a medal this time around, much to the chagrin of their fans.

After watching both Czech games, I must say that I have been thoroughly impressed with Jagr.  At 38-years of age (his birthday was on the 12th), Jagr doesn't look like he's lost a step, and his play with the puck is as impressive as ever.  He dominates every shift he's on the ice, using his large backside to keep players away from the puck.  As I read somewhere, at times is looked like the Latvians trying to check him were “like gnats on an elephant”.  He may be the hardest player to take off the puck, and he still possesses a very quick wrist-shot.

Jagr will be ending his contract with Avangard Omsk of the KHL after this season, and there will no doubt be interest in his services from NHL teams.  However, from what I heard he told Pierre McGuire in a pre-game chat the night of the game against Slovakia, Jagr has no interest in joining a rebuilding team (sorry Edmonton) nor a team where he'd be the focus of the offence.  He is more interested in playing a supporting role if he does in fact return to the NHL.  Personally, I'd love to see him back with the Rangers, as a complement to Marian Gaborik, but many Rangers fans I talk to don't think he'd fit well with head coach John Tortorella.  A more likely option, and one that has been rumoured in the past, could be the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he started his Hall-Of-Fame career.

A true test of the Czech team will come tomorrow (Sunday) against the Russians, who come in after a stunning loss to the Slovaks.  While the Czechs know they are safe in terms of advancement, they can not take the game off, as a shift in pace could hurt them in the quarterfinals.  They must treat this game as a must-win situation in order to maintain momentum heading forward.  This is their first major opponent, and it will be a good measuring stick as to their chances at medalling.

Oddly, I could see backup Ondrej Pavelec getting some action on Sunday, just to keep him sharp.  Expect Evgeni Nabokov to start for Russia, who desperately need to win the game.

Other Notes:

- Jan Hejda of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who will be headed for unrestricted free agency in the summer, has looked very solid, and could be a valuable pickup for anyone needing a shutdown defenceman in the offseason.  I'd love to see him on the Rangers.

- Same goes for Zbynek Michalek of the Phoenix Coyotes, who will also hit the open market in the offseason.  Ideally he would remain in Phoenix to help the rebirth of the Coyotes franchise, but it remains to be seen what he will seek in terms of salary, which is a sad reality for the 'Yotes, who are currently still under league control and must be careful in their financial dealings.

- Former NHLer Herbert Vasilievs looked really good for the Latvians.  Although I doubt he will be returning to the NHL, the possibility does exist.  He would be a nice addition to a third line that needs a skilled winger.

- I would like to see the NHL adopt the points system used in the Olympics, where a win equals three points, an overtime or shootout win equals two, and a loss in extra play yields one point.  However, for the sake of NHL record books, I don't want them to adopt the Olympic system of counting shootout goals in individual player statistics.

- I had no idea that in the Olympics they change the order in shootouts.  I was aware that after the initial three shooters teams could elect to use a player who had already gone (as was the case in the Canada/Switzerland game where Sidney Crosby scored the winner on his second attempt), but it was really weird when Canada had back-to-back attempts.  This seems stupid and arbitrary to me, as it disrupts the flow of the shootout.

- I wonder if Vladimir Ruzicka will ever be a head coach in the NHL.  I wasn't really sold on him when he took over the reins of the team, but it appears that he's matured as a coach and might be ready to cross the pond for a shot with the top league in the world.  I always loved him as a player, and would love to see him back.

- I am confused by the rule that play is stopped when a goalie takes a shot in the mask, and I hope the NHL doesn't implement a similar rule.  Henrik Lundqvist uses his head on purpose sometimes, which may be a dangerous play, but it can work, and let's face it – it's his head, let him use it if he wants to!

- I wonder if the NHL has noted the IIHF rule that sees a stoppage in play if there is a shot taken while a player from the opposing team is in the crease…  I don't know how I feel about that, but it would sure limit the crease-crashing that has become in vogue in the NHL…

- Finally, I'd like to extend my condolences to the family of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger (or is it lugist?) who tragically died during a training run on the opening day of the Olympics.  I can't imagine the emotional turmoil something like this creates for a family.  One minute you're the proudest people in the world because your child has accomplished a dream, and the next minute you're probably wishing they weren't as good at their craft so the whole tragedy would have been avoided.  Rest In Peace.

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