Thursday, May 10, 2012

Kovář saving Czechs in goal

After winning the Euro Hockey Tour last weekend, competing in Brno against Europe's best hockey nations with nearly-complete rosters, many were optimistic about the Czech Republic's medal chances at this year's World Championship. Indeed, many still are.

Jakub Kovář makes a save in the shootout vs Norway.
If there was an area of concern on this Czech team, it was in goal. Accustomed to getting strong performances from the likes of Dominik Hašek, Tomáš Vokoun and, last year, Ondřej Pavelec, they entered this tournament without an NHL netminder, meaning the duties are being split by Jakub Štěpánek, who has a somewhat spotty international record, and Jakub Kovář, who has performed brilliantly in the past two Czech Extraliga campaigns, but had never before played in a top-level international event.

So far, Kovář has played in two of the Czechs' three games, against Denmark and Norway. And while it may not be surprising to many people that he performed brilliantly, the fact that he had to might, against two opponents that are perceived to be weaker.

On Friday, Kovář opened the tournament with a 2-0 win, and while a shutout against Denmark is not something that's going to make many people stand up and notice, anyone who watched it saw Kovář keep his team in it while it was still scoreless in the second period, particularly during a stretch where they had to kill off three straight penalties. If not for his brilliant play at that point in the game, in which his team was out-shot 26-24, it is easily conceivable that the Czechs would not have taken the full three points.

In Kovář's next game, on Monday against Norway, they didn't take the full three points; only two. However, despite the fact that is was another game against an opponent that the Czechs have a clear advantage in talent and are expected to outplay, it was the play of Kovář that got the game to overtime. Then, in the shootout, he stopped all three shots he faced, to make sure his team salvaged at least something from its dismal performance.

According to Kovář himself, though, part of the issue is that these teams are not as weak as people think.

"For us it was another difficult game. Everybody thinks that the Norwegians are weak, but they showed against us that they're stronger than that."

Of course, in between the two games, the Czechs were badly outplayed by Sweden and lost 4-1 with Štěpánek in net. Now with two days off, the Czechs return to action with back-to-back games on Thursday and Friday against Latvia and Italy, two more so-called weaker teams. Kovář will start Thursday and, presumably, Štěpánek will on Friday. Who starts against Russia on Sunday and Germany on Tuesday will surely depend on those performances.

"I did not expect we would alternate in goal, I did not expect it," said Kovář, who seems to be the only one not impressed with his play. "I thought that I would play once, maybe twice in the tournament. On Thursday will be my fourth." 

As for sharing the load, neither goalie apparently has a problem with it. "I don't have a problem with it, and Kuba (Štěpánek) doesn't either. We talk to each other about it, and one cheers the other on."

Latvia, who has beaten Germany already and currently sits in third place in Group S, one spot ahead of the Czechs, will be no pushover. Though the Czechs are confident that they will get good goaltending in the game, they are also hoping that they will play better in front. To that end, they have shuffled the lines around a bit.

NHL reinforcements might help, too, but they won't arrive by Thursday, and they won't be as numerous as originally hoped. Despite three Czechs on the recently-eliminated Philadelphia Flyers, only one, Jakub Voráček, might join the team, but he's still a question mark. Jaromír Jágr and Pavel Kubina have both declined.

"We spoke on Wednesday," said coach Alois Hadamczik. "Voráček has been having problems with his shoulder, so on Wednesday he had to undergo a medical examination. Then we'll see."

Martin Erat of the Nashville Predators is scheduled to arrive in Stockholm on Friday morning, but whether he plays that day has still not been determined.

All quotations are courtesy and

1 comment:

  1. I am convinced there is something wrong with Kovar's glove... he always gets his glove on it but it seems to pop out a lot of the time creating a nasty rebound. He has great reflexes but lousy catching ability... it's like he is playing with 2 blockers. He'll be in tough against Sweden (most likely) in the Quarters... hope he can pull it off. The offense seems to be the big problem though... just not scoring at all and we have some excellent NHL and KHLers that can score.