Sunday, 27 December 2020

Czech-ed Into Submission

One day after lamenting a pair of blowout wins by Canada and the US, we turn the page and find ourselves in the midst of an old Eastern bloc dogfight between the Russians and the Czech Republic in Group B action. Just as Canada gets pumped for US or Russian clashes and just as the Finns and Swedes settle into one of their battles, the Czechs always have games against the Russians circled on the calendar. It's the rivalry they live and die for, and tonight's game was a perfect example as Czechs all over the ice sacrificed themselves to emerge as the victors!

After getting spanked by Sweden in their opening games, I felt that the Czechs had more to give and certainly wanted to show some national pride with a better performance tonight. The 8-1 loss to the Tre Kronor would sting each and evey Czech player, and they knew they had to regroup against the favorite to win the group in Russia. It didn't hurt that the Czechs always seem to want to play Russia when given the chance.

Russia, on the other hand, had dispatched the Americans in a sloppy-yet-successful showing as they used speed and passing to get past the Americans. It was a rather unusual game as Yaroslav Askarov looked rather mediocre in the Russian net, but he made enough saves for the Russians to claim victory over the US. With that average game behind them, it was expected the Russians would turn the engne over on this well-oiled machine of a team.

Where the script took a turn, though, was the Czech Republic's commitment to defence, particularly in the middle of the ice in the defesnive zone where the Russians found nothing for most of the evening.

A puck that hopped the stick of Shakir Mukhamadullin led to the first Czech goal when Jakub Rycholvsky brought the puck back and found Filip Koffer on the two-on-one rush, allowing Koffer to hammer home a goal late in the second period to put the Czechs up 1-0 in the game despite them having been under siege for most of the period. However, as stated above, the middle of the ice belonged to the Czechs as they allowed virtually no penetration into the high-danger scoring areas, and Lukas Parik was excellent in tracking pucks and smothering anything close to him.

The Czechs seemed content in allowing the Russians to make mistakes, rarely forcing offensive plays that may result in turnovers, and they weren't shy about skating as hard as they could into the defensive zone to take their spots in the system devised by Czech head coach Karel Mlejnek. He asked his players to sacrifice their bodies to help Parik by blocking shots, checking like demons, and allowing no second chances, and the Czech players responded with one of the best efforts in recent memory against a Russian team that looked like they would overpower the Czechs on paper.

Early in the third period, Martin Lang added an insurance marker after blocking a shot at the blue line and going the other way with it as his shot went under the blocker arm of Askarov and off the netminder's hip into the back of the net for a 2-0 advantage for the Czechs. The unlikely seemed far more real now as the Russians looked stunned and confused by the Czech's refusal to concede space on the ice or shooting lanes in the offensive zone. As time ticked to 0.0, the jubilation of not only shutting out the Russians, but beating them through patience and self-sacrifice, was evident through the cheers and smiles seen on the Czech team's faces.

As much as we don't want to see blowouts in this tournament, seeing the Czech squad absolutely lock down the defensive zone to stifle the Russians is the opposite of the blowout. This commitment to defence was the answer to all of Russia's offensive stars, and it was certifiably one of the best defensive efforts seen in this tournament in some years. While I don't expect the Swedes to go into a massive defensive shell when they play the Russians, it might be something to consider for whomever gets Russia in the crossover.

A team like Slovakia is showing that they can keep the lid on games against teams like the Czechs and Canadians, and it might be in their best interest to pull that page from the Czech playbook if they do match up against the Russians on the other side. The Germans can do the same, and the Swiss, who need to find some offence, could also use this same strategy against the Russians. In other words, the Russians need to solve this dilemma in case they face the same problem in the medal round.

Upsets are good for the World Junior Championship. Seeing the Czechs shake up the standings in Pool B means that the race to the finish line becomes much more interesting. The Czechs have already played both Sweden and Russia, so, if they can win against the Americans and Austrians, we could see a very different standings board than what everyone predicted before the tournament started. Again, upsets are good for this tournament because it means we may see some different finishes for teams this year.

I think this win by the Czechs will send a bit of a message to every other team here that believes they can win a medal, but upsets are good for hockey. I would have loved to have seen this upset happen in the medal round, but upsets anytime are better than none at all. Let's stop trying to reinvent this tournament because this result would have never happened had Russia and the Czechs not been in the same group.

We don't need to re-invent the wheel when it's already round and rolling.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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