Czechs on the rise as they tame Russian bear
Czech Republic forward Ondrej Kase celebrates his goal against Russia during the third period of the World Junior Championship in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014. (Ernest Doroszuk/QMI Agency)
Czech out this overhaul.
Left for dead after an 0-2 start and staring at the world junior relegation round, the Czech Republic recovered to finish second in the Toronto pool with a 4-1 victory over the underwhelming Russians before 12,566 Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre.
They turned to new goalie Miroslav Svoboda, who stopped an Ivan Barbashyov second period penalty shot, and got two big goals from forward Patrik Zdrahal after shuffling their lines, revamping the special teams and holding a big soul-searching team meeting.
“We changed everything, but that's probably good,” Czech captain Dominik Kubalik, the former OHL Sudbury Wolves and Kitchener Rangers forward, said. “Before this game, our confidence was low and we've played for staying in the first group. Now, we're in second place and it's unbelievable.
“We played like a different team.”
Now, they're the favourites in their Montreal quarterfinal against their biggest foes -- the Slovaks. They've gone from a dire-looking situation to a light-hearted quest for a medal.
Suddenly, they're dangerous.
“There's a lot of potential on this team,” Czech assistant coach Pavel Trnka, the former Anaheim Mighty Duck, said. “The way they played Russia, they deserved to win. There was a lot of pressure on them after our start and it would've been a big disappointment in relegation.
“But we won and the show must go on.”
Now, it's the stumbling Russians in disaster recovery mode.
They're heading to Montreal -- to face the Americans in the quarters -- on the heels of one of their worst showings since pool play started in 1996.
The third-place Russians had never won fewer than two regulation games in the preliminary round.
In Toronto, they won one -- a 7-0 blowout of the Swiss -- to go with a comeback shootout victory over the Danes in their opener.
“It was obviously just brutal,” said Barbashyov, who scored the only Russian goal. “The Czechs, they were in a bad situation, and we didn't play well.”
He didn't feel like everything that happened before -- the undisciplined play, the Anatoli Golyshev suspension, the denied goal against the Swedes -- became too much for the Russians to handle.
“Probably not,” he said. “Something just happened and we lost this game. I think we can (make some noise). We'll be ready for the next one against the USA. It'll be another pretty hard game for us.”
Russian coach Valeri Bragin didn't want to say much in English, but he decried his team's meagre 17 shots.
“Not enough,” he said.
The Czechs are still a flawed squad. The penalty kill is running at a woeful 50% (7-for-14).
But they believe in themselves now.
Boston Bruins property David Pastrnak had three assists and has become one of the tournament's top producers.
Sarnia Sting forward and top NHL prospect Pavel Zacha scored the game winner, his first goal here, while it was the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve back home in Czech Republic.
“If we make plays for Pavel, he's going shoot and score all the time,” Kubalik said. “He's got maybe the best shot on the team.”
Incredibly, the Czechs have a better shot at a medal than the Russians.