Four minutes can be a long time in hockey, especially when guarding the slimmest of leads, the situation for the Czech Republic in its quarterfinal match against Sweden on Wednesday at the Ice Hockey World Championship. In the final minutes, the national team led Sweden 2-1 but failed to block an equaliser sending the game into overtime. Worse, in OT, the Swedes struck again, making this the second year in a row the Czechs will finish outside the medals.
The quarterfinal match-up against Sweden was never going to be easy, but for much of the game on Wednesday the Czech Republic looked like contenders for the semis. Despite falling behind early, the Czechs were able to take control of the game, leading in the 3rd period up to the final minutes. The team’s goalie, Milan Hnilička, solid in the past but sub-par for most of this year’s tournament, posted what was clearly his best performance. It was a turn around at just the right moment. But it wasn’t enough. Former national team player and coach Vladimír Růžička:
“Milan hadn’t played in a while but it was the trainers’ decision and I don’t think it was an easy situation. But as far as yesterday’s game is concerned, he played really well. It’s just a shame he wasn’t able to [prevent the rebound] leading to the third goal.”
Even as the Czechs tried to close the Swedes out, the chances of clinching the game unravelled with Nilson tying it in the final minutes. Just before the play another Swedish player had knocked down the Czech goalie, a move which drew loud protests from the Czech bench. But there was no whistle on the play and the referee chose not to consult the video. The score: 2-2.
In overtime, things rapidly got worse: the Swedes went on the powerplay. While the Czechs fought off the 4 on 3 advantage, they were helpless only seconds later during a scramble in front of Hnilička’s net. On a rebound which Hnilička failed to smother, the puck was directed off a skate and over the goal line. It was over, the Czech players slumping in disappointment. Forward Patrik Eliáš:
“It was a good game from both sides and I think that Milan Hnilička played his best in the tournament and really kept us in the game. Unfortunately the Swedes were just a bit luckier. The only thing that I’m really disappointed about was the refereeing: certain penalties should have been called. I don’t know if they take it less seriously than us, but for us it’s a matter of pride to play for our country and [poor refereeing] ruins the whole experience.”
There’s no question the Czechs had high hopes of bringing a medal back from Quebec, and were further motivated by the fact that the tournament is taking place in North America - an extremely rare event - where the Czechs have never clinched a medal. Now, they’ll have to move on. Changes for the Czech team are now in store. On Wednesday, after the loss, coach Alois Hadamczik announced the first: that he was stepping down.