Hands up, anybody who saw that coming. Didn't think so.
As the week opened, Czech hockey fans were bemoaning what had been a miserable performance by their team, which was on the verge of missing the medal round after disappointing losses to Norway and Switzerland. Commenter Czechboy was mentioning that in the Czech Republic the debate was raging as to whether this was the "worst Czech team ever" at the Worlds.
The squad faced its first must-win on Monday, surviving a test against Latvia by a 3-1 score. That was it for the easy competition, and that was it for the "blowouts". What followed were consecutive one-goal victories against the top hockey countries in the world:
- a 3-2 regulation win over Canada that clinched a medal-round berth;
- a 2-1 shootout victory against Finland in the quarters;
- a 3-2 win over Sweden, also in the shootout, a game which the Czechs trailed until the dying seconds
- saving the best for last, a hard-fought 2-1 regulation win over two-time defending champion and hated rival Russia in the Gold Medal game.
With just four NHLers (including two goalies) on the roster, this appeared to be an undermanned Czech squad, but Vladimir Ruzicka's underrated crew of mostly KHL and Czech Extraliga vets battled extraordinarily hard in all four of these televised do-or-die contests. Veteran superstar Jaromir Jagr was an inspirational leader, while netminder Tomas Vokoun cemented his status as one of the game's top 'tenders with a series of solid games. Vokoun was especially brilliant Sunday, turning aside all but one of 36 shots in shutting down Russia's 27-game winning streak. A PK unit that posted a remarkable +4/-2 for the tourney also played a huge role.
Two players who consistently caught my eye were forwards Jakub Klepis and Lukas Kaspar, both of whom may be NHL-ready in their mid-20s after flaming out as first-round draft picks. An alert NHL GM *coughareyoulisteningSteveTambellinicough* could do a lot worse than bring one or both back across the pond as "mature students".
Most shocking of all was that Rosie Ruzicka could be the coach of such a defensively responsible crew. As an Oiler in 1989-90, Ruzicka posted a rather stunning mark of minus-21 in just 25 GP. It wasn't that those Oilers were a miserable team either, they went on to win the Stanley Cup! (20 years ago today, as a matter of fact.) By then of course, Ruzicka was firmly ensconced in the pressbox, never playing a single playoff game. I guess he must have been learning a thing or two while he was up there.
Fun to see two former Oilers coach their teams to victory in yesterday's medal games, as Bengt Gustafsson joined Ruzicka on the podium after his Swedes copped the bronze with a 3-1 win over host Germany in a tight but dull affair. Both Ruzicka and Gustafsson are on their way out after successful tenures as national team coach, and both leave on a high note, especially Rosie. Too bad Craig MacTavish wasn't so fortunate.
Of more interest to current Oiler fans was the performance of future Oiler Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson, who scored the opening goal in the bronze medal game. A late addition to the Swedish roster, MPS finished the tournament with 9 GP, 5-4-9, +8, finishing third in scoring and first in plus/minus. Moreover, the 19-year-old was named to the end-of-tournament All-Star team. A mighty impressive debut, especially when you consider his All-Star "linemates" are named Malkin and Datsyuk!
Wrapping up the performance of Oiler players and prospects:
Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson .... 9 GP, 5-4-9, +8, bronze medal, tournament All-Star
Linus Omark ........................... 9 GP, 1-3-4, even, bronze medal
Ryan Potulny .......................... 6 GP, 2-2-4, -1
Taylor Chorney ...................... 6 GP, 0-0-0, +2
Jordan Eberle ........................ 4 GP, 1-3-4, +2
* * *
The tourney as a whole was an extremely defensive minded affair in 2010. Just 277 goals were scored in the 56 games, an average of just under 5 per game. Believe it or not, there was just one game where the losing team scored as many as 3 goals (France defeated Kazakhstan in a 5-3 thriller in the relegation round), while there were no fewer than 14 contests in which the winning team scored 2 or less. The 8 games of the medal round produced just 32 tallies, including 2 shootout "goals" and 2 empty netters, yielding an average of just 3.5 real goals per game. The international game, once known for its wide open, exciting play, has become an extremely tactical, oftentimes tedious game of patience, and seems to be growing moreso by the year. Some games I watched had extended stretches of "action" that resembled soccer on ice, minus the excitement. There was lots of good hockey intermingled, but in my view the balance has fallen far too heavily on the defensive side of the puck. Not sure what the solution is, but it's high time the IIHF addressed the matter before its product becomes completely unwatchable.