Sunday, April 1, 2012

Czech women win in Latvia, advance to Ottawa 2013

After winning last year's Division I, Group B World Championship in Caen, France, the Czech Republic women's national team entered this year's Division I, Group A tournament in Ventspils, Latvia, as the lowest seed. Therefore, the fact that they finished with a 4-1 record to win the group might surprise the casual observer.

Photo: Romualds Vambuts, iihf.com
However, anyone who has paid attention to Czech women's hockey knows that the program has improved in leaps and bounds over the past few years. Their success at the U18 level is evidence of that. They have been a regular competitor in the top group, where two years ago, in Stockholm, they finished fourth. This year, in Zlín and Přerov, they finished sixth, playing their last game before a raucous crowd of more than 3000.

“It’s amazing. We just came up from one level below,” 19-year-old forward Lucie Povová said to IIHF.com's Marek Merk. “We wanted to win, but we didn’t expect to get to the highest division that fast.”

A student and player at Northeastern University, Povová has a good sense of how women's hockey, and the Czech team in particlar, is perceived arond the world. “I think we’re going to get much more respect from the people because in the Czech Republic no one really recognizes women’s hockey and even in the States or in Canada people are going to recognize us. They play well, but we’re up there too now. It’s really amazing.”

Though the Czechs won the group, they didn't take the easiest route, surrendering four goals in the first period of their first game against Japan and losing 4-3. The second game was key, though, as they beat Norway 2-1, with Denisa Křížová scoring the winning goal with 6:58 remaining in regulation time. Norway ultimately finished second, one point behind the Czechs, so taking the full three points in that game proved crucial.

After that, they beat the host Latvians 5-0, Kazakhstan 3-2, and Austria 6-1 to take 12 of a possible 15 points.

The team's leading scorer was Sonja Nováková, with 7 points five games, followed by Alena Polenská and Šimona Studentová with 5 each. All three players scored 3 goals, as did Povová. 

In goal, 31-year-old Radka Lhotská was selected as the tournament's top goalie with a miniscule 0.83 goals-against average and a .962 save percentage. 

“I haven’t really realized what we have achieved here yet, but I think this will come later,” she said after the last game. "I feel great, but the main thing is that we won. We all battled like a team.”

The win means that the Czech Republic advances to the top group for the first time ever. Next year's Women's World Championship will take place in Ottawa, Canada. 

“I’m really looking forward to going to Ottawa,” Lhotská concluded. “It was our dream and now it's come true.”

Final standings:

1. Czech Republic  5 4 0 0 1 19:8 12 
2. Norway          5 3 1 0 1 20:7 11 
3. Japan           5 3 0 0 2 15:10 9 
4. Austria         5 2 0 0 3 16:18 6 
5. Latvia          5 1 1 0 3  5:20 5 
6. Kazakhstan      5 0 0 2 3  7:19 2 

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