Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Goaltending masterclass ends in heartache for the Czech Republic

Petr Mrázek gained plaudits from all across the hockey world for his performance against the United States in the Round Robin, but even he couldn't lead them to victory over Russia, as the defending champions scraped their way to victory in a thrilling match up in Calgary. The Russian overtime hero was defenceman Grigori Zheldakov who pounced on a loose puck in the Czech zone, and wired it past the Ottawa 67's goaltender and sent the Russian players into raptures. In what turned into a great goaltending between the aforementioned Mrázek and Russia's 17 year old goalie Andrei Vasilevski, with the former making 43 stops, and the latter 39 in a 2-1 victory for the Russians.

Tomáš Filippi and Tomáš Hyka dejected after
Grigori Zheldakov's winner
photo: Toronto Sun
The game was thrilling, with both teams going back and forth, and both goalies making save after save. The flashpoint came in overtime, as the Russians took the puck into the Czech zone after killing a penalty. Nikita Kucherov's shot from the left wing was blocked, but in his follow through, he high sticked Slavia Praha prospect Daniel Krejčí below the left cheek, sending the Czech player down to the ice holding his face. By the letter of the law it was not a penalty, although whether or not the play should have been stopped for a facial injury is another matter. Krejčí was left heartbroken by the defeat, although he would still show his distaste for the Russian side after the game. Due to the Russians having the puck in the offensive zone, the play continued, and two Czech players were sucked into the left corner, creating all the time and space for Kucherov to find Zheldakov with an inch perfect pass, and his shot scorched the twine. It was heartache for the Czechs, who, after getting off to a slow start to the game, gained more confidence as they went on. In the third period they forced a number of stops from Vasilevski, who, like the Czechs, improved as the game went on.

The Russians now face Canada in the
semi finals, in a rematch of last years final
photo: Toronto Sun
In the early going it was the Russians who had the better of the play, as Evgeni Kuznetsov, the captain of the Russian side somehow managed to fluff a breakaway chance after leaving Mrazek for dead with a series of dekes, but he contrived to shoot the puck out of play. The Russians started double shifting their top two units very early into the game, and whilst Kuznetsov, Gusev and Kosov were looking impressive, two of the top prospects for the 2011 draft, Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko floundered under the spotlight; although the latter was returning from injury. After being outshot 16-5 in the first period, the Czechs came out in the second period with a spring in their step, and just fifteen seconds in went close to breaking the deadlock. It took seven minutes before the scoring would finally start, and the Czechs took the lead. The breakout star of Czech hockey in 2011, Tomáš Hertl was the architect of the goal, as he outworked the Russian defenceman behind the net, and his wraparound pass went right onto the tape of Ottawa Senators draft pick Jakub Culek, who calmly finished past Vasilevski. However, the Russians weren't going to lie down, and they started to get back into the game soon after the goal. Daniel Krejčí was denied by Vasilevski after deking his way through the whole Russian team, but a matter of seconds later, Daniil Apalkov took the puck up to the other end of the ice, and with no other options, wired a wrist shot which eluded Mrázek, and lit the lamp for the Russians. Whilst you could hardly blame Mrázek for conceding, after some of his saves earlier in the game, he would certainly want it back. However, would it shame the young man's confidence? Of course not. As time expired in the second period, he showed that he was still in this game, as he somehow stuck a toe out, denying Yaroslav Kosov with a sprawling pad save, giving his now trademark fist pump for good measure.

The stars of the show: Andrei
Vasilevski and Petr Mrázek
Photo: Toronto Sun
The third period was bound to be a good one, and the two teams certainly didn't disappoint, with play going from one end to the other, and both teams having countless chances to finish the game. Both goalies knew that this would be twenty minutes of overtime. Mrázek set the tone with a brilliant paddle stop early in the period, reaching behind him and blocking the shot with the blade of his stick, but not long after, Vasilevski somehow got a pad to a Dmitrij Jaškin's wide open one timer. The young Slavia forward could only hold his head in his hands after being denied what was a certain goal. Mrázek was not to be outdone, as straight off the draw, the Russians got the puck to Kosov, who wired a wrist shot which Mrázek flashed his glove out and somehow plucked the puck out of the air. Still, Vasilievski would do exactly the same, denying Tomáš Filippi with a similar glove save. Both teams were seemingly content with heading to overtime, but with just 48 seconds remaining the Czechs had their chance, as Kucherov went to the box for high sticking. The Czechs couldn't convert, and soon after the penalty expired in overtime, Zheldakov put the game to bed.

For Mrázek, the cult hero of this years edition of the World Juniors after his erratic celebrations during the USA game, the defeat was tough to take. "It was a pretty good game for everybody on the team," Mrzaek said. "But we lost so we can't talk about it being our best game. It's difficult, but it's just hockey. Sometimes you have to take it." (Source). For the Czechs, they will now face rivals Slovakia in the 5th placed playoff on Wednesday in a game that neither team will want to lose, and who knows what Mrázek will have in store for us in his final game of the tournament.

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