Sunday, December 18, 2011

Performances from unlikely sources help Czechs finish 2nd in Moscow

Just as they did in 2010, the Czech Republic has finished second place at the Channel One Cup in Moscow.

For a team that generally does not do well at the Euro Hockey Tour and has not won the event since 1998, there were many encouraging moments from the Czech team and, with a little bit of luck, they could have won the tournament.

It opened with a with a national team record. On Thursday night in Chomutov, Petr Průcha scored right off the opening faceoff, taking advantage of a defensive miscue and beating Victor Fasth with a quick wrist shot to the blocker side after only 5 seconds had elapsed; it was the fastest goal from the start of a game in Czech or Czechoslovakian national team history.

Unfortunately, that's all the offence that would come from the Czechs on the night, as the Swedes scored twice in the second and won 2-1.

On Saturday and Sunday in Moscow, the Czechs took five of a possible six points, convincingly beating Finland 5-1 and then edging Russia in a shootout on their home ice. They were led by some unlikely sources, both offensively and defensively.

On Saturday, Tomáš Pöpperle saw his first action in goal for the Czech national team since 2006, and he stopped all but one shot in a convincing victory. The 27-year-old netminder, who played two games for the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2006-07, has been one of the big reasons why Sparta Praha currently sits in second place in the Extraliga standings.

"After the first eight minutes of play, I said to myself I reached my new career high," Pöpperle said to's David Schlegel after the game. "The game went well all the way and ended with a deserved victory, which is great."

Offensively, they got two goals each from Zbyňek Irgl and Petr Vrána

On Sunday, they faced arch-rival Russia in a game that would decide second place in the tournament. They got two goals from Roman Červenka and eventually went to a shootout tied 3-3. There, it would be a battle between Irgl and Russia's Alexander Radulov, who did all the scoring. Through four rounds, each had scored twice. In the fifth, Irgl scored his third, while Radulov was finally denied by Jakub Štěpánek.

"Radulov is the best player not only at the EHT, but also in the KHL," said Štěpanek to's Roman Solovyev. The goalie and shooter face each other in the Russian circuit. "I'm happy that the third time I was able to stop his shot."

"The first penalty shot was more difficult; all three times I shot in other way. I don't remember scoring all three penalty shots in one game before," said Irgl, who had never scored for the national team before his explosion this weekend.

"Before the last game here we had only six defencemen. The guys played the way we talked about before the game," said Czech coach Alois Hadamczik.

Although he was initially against the idea of leaving players who were competing in the Red Bulls Salute this weekend, Hadamczik was pleased by the performance of many of the players who do not normally get many chances to represent the Czech Republic. "We're trying to look at more players in the EHT to give us more options for the World Championships."

The Czechs finished second in the tournament, but they could have finished first had they not surrendered two second period goals to Sweden on Thursday. The Swedes ultimately won the tournament, one point ahead of the Czechs. 

With the 2011-12 edition of the Euro Hockey Tour now at its halfway point, Russia leads with 12 points, followed by Sweden with 9, the Czech Republic with 8 and Finland with 7. The two remaining tournaments will be in Stockholm February 9 to 12 and Brno April 26 to 29. The tournament in Brno, which will be played the weekend before the start of the World Championships, will feature a roster that will much more closely resemble that of the big event.

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