On the standings board, they were two very different games. In one, a dominant Canadian squad would face off against a suddenly irrelevant American team, a team already consigned to the relegation round while the Canadians were assured of a berth in the semi-finals. In the other, the two most potent teams in the ‘A’ pool would play for the chance to win their side of the round robin.
As it turned out, they weren’t so very different in the end.
The Canadians leaped out to a 3-0 lead over Team USA in a game the crowd gave no sign of regarding as meaningless. However, with the lead firmly in hand, the Canadians faltered while the Americans were resurgent. Jack Campbell, who had played shakily for the early part of the contest, managed to buckle down and closed the door despite several Canadian chances over the final 40 minutes. At the opposite end, Scott Wedgewood finally surrendered a goal on a perfect shot by Charlie Coyle, and then another on a creative bank attempt by American captain Jason Zucker.
Yet, the Canadians survived. Scott Harrington left the game due to what head coach Don Hay called an “upper body” injury; he was followed by Nathan Beaulieu, who took a puck to the face that left the side of his mouth swollen and disfigured. It didn’t matter. Relentless U.S. pressure wasn’t enough for the third goal, and Canada hung on for the win.
The Russians also took an early 3-0 lead over Sweden, with two even-strength and one shorthanded goal. Yet, like the Canadians they struggled to hang on to that dearly purchased lead; after a first period where the shots were roughly even, the Russians were outshot 40-12. Oscar Klefbom got the scoring started for the Swedes in the third period; his work was followed by two more tallies, including one with just 40 seconds left off the stick of Max Friberg, the Swedes’ surprise scoring star in the tournament. Then in overtime, Friberg picked up another point, assisting on Joakim Nordstrom’s dramatic winner.
Elsewhere, the Slovaks and the Finns both won their games over the Swiss and Czechs, respectively. Slovakia scored four unanswered goals in the third period to send the Swiss to relegation play and guarantee themselves a game in the quarterfinals against Finland – who earned the right to play the Slovaks, rather than Russia, with their 4-0 victory over the Czechs. The Czechs, in turn, will play the Russians in the quarterfinals in a game that brings a long-standing (and often ignored rivalry) to the surface.
Assuming that the higher-seeded teams win, which is the probable (if hardly certain) outcome, it sets the stage for semi-final games with the potential for greatness. In this scenario, Canada will battle old enemy Russia in the semi-finals, and undoubtedly see their toughest fight of the tournament, as the Russians boast both some of the tournament’s most talented forwards and arguably the best goalie in Andrei Vasilevski. The 6’3” Vasilevski had turned aside all 70 shots he faced prior to playing Sweden, and stopped 51 of 55 in overtime defeat, finishing the round robin portion of the tournament with a 0.968 SV%. In the other game, Nordic neighbours in Sweden and Finland would play out their rivalry once more on the international stage.
The best part of this tournament has finally arrived.
“In my heart, I hate Russia. With all my heart.”
When I asked Czech defenseman Daniel Krejci if he preferred to play the Swedes or the Russians in the quarterfinals, I was unprepared for the venom of his response. He chose Russia, with the following rationale: “In my heart, I hate Russia. With all my heart.”
The general sentiment, if not the exact phrasing was something that Krejci had in common with many of his teammates. There were exceptions, of course; Petr Mrazek professed not to care, while assistant coach Jiri Fischer (who because of his proficiency in English has handled much of the media dealings for the Czech team) when asked for his preference chose a third option, saying that he would prefer a win.
The reasons for the comments of Krejci, quoted above, and other players, go deep. This isn’t some rivalry between nations that have been on mostly good terms for years, as is the case with the Canada-U.S. rivalry. Instead, it’s based on something more substantial – in 1968, the Soviet Union (along with Warsaw Pact allies) invaded Czechoslovakia in what is now known as the “Prague Spring”; they didn’t leave until the Velvet Revolution in the fall and early winter of 1989. The politics of those events still resonates today – Radek Faksa specifically used the word “political” when describing the rivalry between the Czechs and the Russians.
While the Russians are heavy favourites in any contest with the Czechs, the players are to a man convinced that they can win the day. Krejci again: “I think if it’s an important match, the Czech Republic can beat Russia every time.”
Regardless of the outcome, expect no quarter from either side and a fierce effort from these underdog Czechs.
The character of the American team has been questioned repeatedly in this tournament. Their collapse after surrendering a lead to Finland, and their similar inability to put up a fight late in the game against the Czechs after dominating both, their consignment to the relegation round after being touted as the only threat to top-ranked Canada; put it all together and many fans and many in the media doubted the character and the heart of the Americans.
Emerson Etem didn’t appear to be pleased when I put the question to him of whether he felt the team had answered those questions. Even so, he gave me his take: namely, that his team’s refusal to quit against the Canadians should have answered all of those questions.
Dean Blais, the American coach who won it all in this tournament just two years ago, talked afterward about how proud he was of his players for their effort against the Canadians. Virtually to a man, the Americans held their heads high and talked about playing for pride, and ending thing well.
It won’t change the fact that in the long-term, this team will be viewed as a disappointment. But for them, at this point, it almost doesn’t matter. They showed their best against a team that had humiliated every other opponent they faced, and as long as they put in the same effort the rest of the way they’ll be able to end this tournament with that pride.