Team USA ends Czechs' dream of gold on home ice

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This was the ending all Czech ice hockey fans secretly feared: going out early at the 68th Ice Hockey World Championship. Now, it has happened: Wednesday night 17, 360 fans at the Sazka Arena watched as the Czechs were downed by Team USA in a nail-biter filled with plenty of chances and fast-skating, but also mistakes and missed opportunities.

Jiri Slegr, photo: CTK
For a hockey-loving nation like the Czech Republic hosting the World Championship has been a holiday; even announcers in the city's metro system have kept commuters up-to-date on the latest scores. Wednesday night, though, Czech fans on their way home after the game had little to celebrate as U.S. defenceman Andy Roach had scored the only goal in penalty shoot-outs to end the Czechs' dream of winning gold on home ice.

Roach was also the only player from either team to really put spark into his penalty-shot, a deke where he almost came to a full stop before driving the puck past goalie Tomas Vokoun. But, it has to be said the Czechs had their share of ill-luck: two posts hit during penalties including a shot by Jaromir Jagr.

Success was not meant to be, even after the Czechs led 2-0. The U.S. eventually came back and ultimately took the game. U.S. forward Mike Reid:

Andy Roach scores, photo: CTK
"Yeah, it's tough for them and it's an easier situation for us: people at home are not even really aware of the tournament and you know over here they got a lot of big players and they have the pressure of the whole country, you know, to win. So, I'm sure it's a lot tougher for them. We just went out and played and had fun."

They certainly did and the first period was a scorcher, with the U.S. coming out far stronger than anyone expected - and the Czechs were lucky. The U.S. had several sure-fire opportunities that were either stoned by Tomas Vokoun, or by the solid Czech defence. In one instance Vokoun was down but stacked his pads and kicked out, to deflect a U.S. shot over the goal.

Jiri Slegr and Jaromir Jagr, photo: CTK
The second period, however, was almost all Czechs.

First new-comer Martin Skoula blasted a scorcher past goalie Ty Conklin. Then, in a text-book wrap-around Jaromir Jagr slammed home goal number two. At this point it appeared it would be the kick-start for the Czech game-winning machine: in 6 games they had never lost the lead, and no team had really come close to coming back.

First the U.S. got back a sharp angle goal from Park. Then, in the 3rd period, still rattling the Czechs, the U.S. got a lucky break when Jan Hlavac deflected the puck into his own net. (The goal was credited to Westrum). The game was set for overtime in which the Czechs got back some speed but were denied repeatedly up close. All leading to the ill-fated penalties.

Jiri Dopita, photo: CTK
The Czechs were devastated, not least goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who had been phenomenal throughout:

"It's tough, it's hard for me to put it in words right now. But, that's life. We can't change what happened now and all of us have to face up to it."

In fairness, the U.S. win might not have been expected but it was well-deserved. Though the Czechs dominated large portions of the game, at times they made more mistakes than usual: poor passing, not skating with enough jump, too often dumping the puck. For the first time in the tournament they also looked tired, perhaps no surprise given the team's star players Jagr, Straka, Dopita, Rucinsky are now all in their early thirties. They'd gotten used to winning, and they had potential to go all the way. But, in the end as hockey players in such situations will always tell you, what was missing was a final lucky bounce.

Note: The U.S. defeat of the Czech Republic means that once again the host country will fail to win gold at the Ice Hockey World Championship, something that last happened in 1986, when the Soviet Union won in Moscow.