It isn’t often that both teams come out of a hockey game feeling like winners, but the contest between Canada and Czechia at the World Para Hockey Championship on Tuesday night was one of those cases.
Czechia gave the tournament hosts and definitive medal favourites all they could handle before dropping a 2-1 decision in one of the closest games of the tournament so far -- eclipsed only by the 1-0 war between Italy and Germany earlier in the day.
“Can I swear?” Czechia coach Jakub Novotny asked before pausing and saying matter-of-factly, “I’m (effing) proud of my boys. They played so hard. I don’t know what to say, I don’t have words right now and I’m trying to process it. We thought it would be a hard game for us but we didn’t expect to be one short. I’m trying to calm my emotion because I’m so proud of our players, they put so much work into this game, it was the third game in three days and this still pulled this out of them. It’s amazing.”
As the score would indicate, there was little to chose between the two teams from start to finish.
Canada took a 1-0 lead out of the first period on a goal by captain Tyler McGregor, but Czechia captain Radek Zelinka got that one back 2:26 into the second period. The teams settled into a tight-checking battle from there, and it took a grinding goal on the power play by Adam Dixon with 2:16 remaining in the frame to give Canada the lead back.
The final period was all tension, as both teams had chances, but Canada was able to hang on and pick up the slim victory.
“I’m extremely happy about the result, we didn’t really expect that before the game and I’m really proud of the boys in the dressing room for putting up such a battle,” Zelinka said. “After scoring the first goal, we believed we could win the game. It’s a shame it didn’t work out for us today, but we feel pretty good for the next game.”
McGregor immediately gave a ton of credit to Czechia for their performance when asked for his opinion of the result.
“It was closer than we would have liked, but I think in reflecting on that, you have to give so much credit to them, they played an outstanding game,” he said. “They’re fast, they’re physical, they’re good. They skated really well and they tested us all game long and for our team, we were talking about regardless how the score ended up, it was good to be in a close game and hang on to a lead in the third period.
“For us, we need to create confidence and build from that moving into tomorrow (against the United States) and really start looking ahead to that right away.”
Team Canada coach Russ Herrington was of much the same opinion when it came to the quality of game Czechia played.
“I think we knew going into the game that they have the ability to frustrate you,” he said. “They have a terrific goaltender, you saw how tough their D are to generate offence against and they proved that from the drop of the puck right through to the end.”
Getting a test like that at this point in the tournament could also have benefits down the road, he added.
“We don’t play in many games over the years where you have to scratch and claw to hold on to a lead and I think that’s important in the development of our team and taking strides forward, and we felt in the third period we managed really well. That’s something we can use moving forward whether it’s tomorrow or in the future and the big games ahead.”
Czechia goaltender Martin Kudela was given praise by everyone in the post-game media interview zone for his performance, as his 20 saves on the night included a handful where even his teammates felt a goal was inevitable, only for him to come up with the incredible stop.
Dominic Larocque wasn’t tested as often in Canada’s goal, making nine saves, but came through when Czechia was pressing to try and take the lead and tie the game.
Now, it’s on to the marquee game of the round robin.
Canada and the United States are on the ice at 7 p.m. at the Moose Jaw Events Centre in a game between the top two ranked teams in the tournament, with both teams looking forward to a barnburner in front of a great crowd (see related story).
Czechia has the day off, and will be back in action in the quarter-finals on Friday, with their opponent to be determined by the outcome of other games Wednesday.
Tickets are available at www.sasktix.ca.