Friday, December 20, 2013

Kovář out-duels Koskinen, leads Czechs to victory at home

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On home ice, the Czech Republic prevailed 2-0 over Finland in the opening game for both teams in the Channel One Cup. In a duel between Finn Mikko Koskinen and Czech Jakub Kovář, veteran Petr Nedvěd was the only player to beat either one of them, with a power-play marker late in the second period.

Petr Nedvěd was the only player to score on one of the two
goalies at O2 Arena on Thursday. Photo:
"We had some opportunities early in the game but we didn't play the power play well," Nedvěd began, referring to the fact that his team had the first three power plays of the game -- including a two-man advantage for 1:04 in the first three minutes of the game -- but it remained scoreless. 

"For a goalie, that's a good way to start," said Koskinen, who got into the game early with several shots, but nothing too difficult. "I saw most of the shots -- it was pretty easy that way."

Exactly how many shots Koskinen or Kovář faced remains a mystery, as no totals were announced in the arena or published anywhere officially afterward -- quite possibly they weren't counted -- but the Czechs had a clear advantage in the first period, less so in the second period as the Finns got some chances, and then the final period was all Finland -- and Kovář.

After going 0 for 3 on first period power plays, the Czechs got their one and only advantage of the second period late, when Mikko Mäenpää went off for holding -- a call he wasn't impressed with on the ice but showed restraint when questioned about it afterward.

"It's the kind of play that happens 25 times in a game and I got a penalty for it," he sighed. "I can't really say anything about it. They scored a nice goal. That's what happens. There's nothing we can do about it anymore."

Nedvěd and Roman Červenka, two of the more talented forwards on this Czech team who showed great chemistry together all night, were finally able to manufacture a goal with some nice passing and an absolute rocket of a wrist shot from Nedvěd from the hash marks near the right-wing boards that beat Koskinen high to the glove side.

"I got to the spot where I like it and it was a wrist shot," Nedvěd described. "(Koskinen)'s a big goalie and he played really well today. He stopped a lot of the high shots but this one I held it, held it and he went down a little bit and I fired it upstairs."

Koskinen's description is similar, in that he made the first move which gave Nedvěd the opening: "It was a good shot but I didn't give myself the best chance to save it so I'm a little pissed off at myself right now."

Whereas the Czechs got the bulk of the power play in first two periods, the tables turned in the third. Finland had all three power plays in the third period, including a two-man advantage for 1:12 in the early going. Like the Czechs, they didn't cash in, but they came oh-so-close.

The third period belonged to Kovář, and with his team down two men he put his exclamation point on the game. The Finns moved the puck around the perimeter, and defencemen Petteri Nummelin and Anssi Salmela both shot from the point. After the second one, the Czech goalie was down and out with Janne Pesonen on the doorstep staring at a yawning cage, but out came Kovář's left pad to make a save that must have seemed like an optical ellusion to a lot of the 13 096 in attendance. Even Pesonen stood there with a dumbfounded look on his face. He had had the tying goal on his stick.

"Every goalie feels better when he gets lots of shots," a jovial Kovář said afterward, echoing the sentiments of Koskinen, but doing his best to deflect credit away from himself.

Head coach Alois Hadamczik was less restrained in his praise, though: "He was as clutch as Hašek in Nagano," raved the coach who will ultimately decide who to take to these upcoming Olympics. 

"We had lots of chances and I've gotta say that their goalie played a pretty good game," said Mäenpää, who was on the point a lot in the third period on the power play, and got a few shots through to Kovář. "I don't know, when you get those kinds of chances, you just have to have more of a killer instinct and get in there when the chances come. Maybe we were too soft today, but again, I have to give credit to their goalie."

With about eight minutes to play, there was another flurry in Kovář's crease, but he stopped the first shot, then the rebound while down on the ice. 

"When it was 1-0, we had some good scoring chances, especially five-on-three, but we just couldn't score," said Finnish coach Erkka Westerlund, who couldn't find much fault in his team's game, despite the loss. "I think the offence and defence were quite even between the two teams and both goalies were very, very good." 

Westerlund called his timeout with 1:43 left and pulled Koskinen for a sixth attacker, but that allowed Jaroslav Hlinka to fire a shot from right in front of his own net, all the way down into the unguarded net to make it a 2-0 final.

The buzz around the arena at the end of the game was that Kovář had played his way onto the Olympic roster, if his spot there wasn't already assured. But what about others?

"Everyone on the team would like to go to the Olympics," concluded Nedvěd, who won a silver medal with Canada in 1994. "There isn't enough room for everybody here, though. We all know that most of the players will come from the NHL, but some players from Europe will go, for sure. That'll be the coaches' decision."

In the meantime, both teams now head to Sochi, where they will play Sweden and Russia this weekend. 

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