Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mrázek's confidence infects Czechs

Petr Mrázek is excited to be at this year's WJC. Photo: Larry Wong,
Edmonton Journal,
Tomáš Král looks like a genius right now.

After watching the last two World Junior tournaments, where the Czech Republic got mediocre-at-best goaltending while they had a world-class goalie on the sidelines, the president of the Czech Ice Hockey Association saw that he had to intervene. And so he helped negotiate a settlement with HC Vítkovice, the club that held the playing rights to Petr Mrázek, which would release the Detroit Red Wings draft pick and make him available for the 2012 championships.

Helping to make Mrázek available might have actually denied Král's son, Tomáš Král Jr., the opportunity to play in the tournament; the younger Král is currently the third-string goalie. But obviously Král's duties as association president overrided nepotism.

"This is an extremely helpful step in the interest of representing the Czech Republic," he said back in late November at the announcement that Mrázek would be available. "An extremely high level of competition awaits us in Canada, and we need a goalkeeper of the quality of Petr Mrázek." How right he was on both counts.

For those that missed it, Mrázek was nothing short of incredible on Friday in Edmonton, stopping 52 of 54 shots in a 5-2 victory over the United States, a win that vaulted the Czechs into the quarterfinals and, incredibly, dropped the Americans into the relegation round. About the only thing more he could have done for his team was score a goal, and in the 59th minute, he almost did that too. 

"I tried it last year too, in Ottawa," he said to of his attempt. "I saw the puck heading toward the net, then it skipped and went a bit wide. But that's okay." He added: "Defeating the Americans in this game, it's an unbelievable feeling. I am very happy."

A lot of people are happy, and a lot more are surprised. The fact is, though, an upset seemed possible for a while against Canada, as well. Although they seemed overmatched in the first period, the goaltending of Mrázek held them in, particularly his penalty shot save in the dying seconds. In the second period, the Czech team was playing with more confidence, and if not for a lapse late in the period that allowed Canada to score twice and open up a three-goal lead, they could have made it a battle to the end. As Mrázek said after the Canadian game, "It's a game of inches."

As anyone who's watched the Czech team last year and this year at the World Juniors, a big difference is the confidence on the team. Although being critical of goaltending is not often done publicly by players, as it can be seen as a cop-out, the amount of confidence a team has in its own goaltending is often evident in how the team plays in front. Though goaltending was far from the team's only problem last season, they didn't seem to be confident that either Marek Mazanec or Filip Novotný would hold them in there. All of that has changed this year, and it shows. It shows in the exuberant goal celebrations, and in particularly it shows in how physical the team is playing; they're not afraid that every minor penalty will result in the puck going into their net.

"When a goalie plays like that, it becomes infectious and affects the whole team," said coach Miroslav Přerost.

Not only his play, but his enthusiasm. Mrázek has twice denied opponents on penalty shots, which were followed by fist-pumping theatrics. In the last half of the third period, when the Czechs broke a 2-2 tie with three straight goals, the celebrations around the USA goal were only part of the story; Mrázek couldn't control his excitement in front of his goal either. He didn't even try.

“He’s showman. He’s a real funny guy," defenceman Daniel Krejčí told Postmedia News. "He’s awesome. When you have him in back, you’re feeling great. You can’t lose with him."

How can this team not be confident heading into its final group game against Finland on Saturday? It's a big game, too. Although both teams will play in quarterfinal games in Calgary on Monday, the winner will get second place, which will earn them a game against Switzerland or Slovakia, rather than Russia or Sweden. "We're going right after the Finns," said defenceman David Musil. "We're going to fight for second place."

As hard as it was for Král to watch those last two tournaments, it was even more difficult for Mrázek, and now he's making the most of his opportunity. "I'm happy that I'm able to play in the World Juniors. I would like to thank the Vítkovice club and Mr. Král for allowing that to happen." 

Surely all Czech hockey fans would like to thank them as well.

1 comment:

  1. Any word on Musil and Straka? Those are 2 key guys for us that would've been very helpful against Finland.