The stage was set for Russia to win its third straight IIHF World Championship gold medal. Coming off its disappointing sixth-place finish at the 2010 Olympics and the early Stanley Cup playoff exits of all its top stars, the Russian team was eager to salvage what had been a forgettable season for virtually everyone involved with the squad. Everything seemed to be in place when the Russians faced off against an unheralded Czech Republic squad in the gold medal game last Sunday.
There was just one problem. The script that had the Russians winning again wasn't translated into Czech. Coached by Vladimir Ruzicka, the Czechs pulled off a significant upset in topping their longtime rivals, 2-1, to win their first gold medal since 2005 and sixth since the breakup of the former Czechoslovakia.
Heading into the gold medal game, the Russians had dominated the tournament. Vycheslav Bykov's team was the only squad to go through the preliminary round, medal-round qualification segment, quarterfinals and semifinals with a perfect record. The Czechs, by comparison, had some stumbles early in the tournament, losing in a major upset to Norway and a minor upset to Switzerland before hitting their stride after barely qualifying for the medal round.
The Russian roster was loaded with NHL stars, and was returning 14 players from their Vancouver Olympic roster and eight who suited up for both the 2008 and 2009 gold medal-winning squads at the Worlds. Among others, the Russians boasted the tournament's leading scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk, along with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Semin and Sergei Gonchar.
On the flip side, the Czech roster was largely comprised of players who ply their trade in the Czech Extraliga or other European leagues. The only "big name' members of this Czech Republic team were Florida Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun and former NHL superstar Jaromir Jagr. Their presence proved to be the biggest individual factors in the win against the Russians, but the entire team was a hard-working squad that exhibited a level of two-way play that had been missing for several years.
In the gold medal game, Vokoun outdueled Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov, turning back 35 of 36 shots, many of which were of the difficult variety. Vokoun, who was also in goal when a deeper version of the Czech national team shut out Canada for the gold medal at the 2005 tournament, made no fewer than a half-dozen eye-popping saves against the likes of Malkin and a fired-up Ovechkin. Vokoun finished the tournament with a sparkling 1.57 goals against average and .944 save percentage.
Meanwhile, the 38-year-old Jagr finished the tournament with 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists) in nine games and put forth a stellar effort in the finale, assisting on the game's first goal through a strong individual effort and drawing a five-minute power play for his team in the third period. Other tournament standouts for the Czech team in the tournament included Tomas Rolinek (4 goals, including the gold-medal winner) and Jakub Klepis (3 goals, 7 points).
The atmosphere in Cologne's Lanxess Arena was cacophonous, with the contingent of Russian supporters outnumbering their Czech counterparts among the crowd of 19,132 fans. Both sides waved flags and sang throughout the game, with the Russian exhortations becoming increasingly desperate as the minutes ticked off the clock.
Russia spent virtually the entire contest chasing the game. The Czechs grabbed a 1-0 lead just 20 seconds after the drop of the opening faceoff. On the play, Jagr muscled his way behind the net to claim the puck. Drawing the attention of both Varlamov and several defenders -- reminiscent of the type of fear he struck in opposing teams during his prime -- Jagr found a wide-open Klepis on the doorstep. He slid an accurate pass to his linemate, who slammed the puck into the net.
The Russians went on to outshoot the Czechs in the first period, 13-8, but Vokoun made tough stops on Maxim Afinogenov, Malkin and Ovechkin to preserve the 1-0 lead. Datsyuk finally beat Vokoun with a shot but time had expired on the opening period a fraction of a second earlier. The Czechs continued to nurse their slim lead until the 18:13 mark of the second period. Rolinek drove the net and was rewarded as an attempted pass from Karel Rachunek deflected into the net off his skate. The goal stood upon video review.
In the third period, the Czechs tightened their defense against a Russian team that resorted to trying to make too many individual plays around swarms of defenders. Finally, Ovechkin broke through the defense and fired a rocket of a shot from the right circle that Vokoun cleanly swallowed up. As the Russians grew increasingly frustrated, defenseman Alexei Emelin dealt his club's own gold medal hopes a serious blow with a low-bridge hit on Jagr along the boards. Jagr got up slowly but finished the game as Emelin was assessed a five-minute clipping major and a game misconduct.
The Russians survived the penalty but now had only 5:10 remaining to mount a two-goal comeback. Almost immediately thereafter, Viktor Kozlov took a penalty, leaving just 3:14 by the time it expired. But the door for Russia's final charge was left open a crack by a series of late-game penalties against clutching and grabbing Czech players that enabled Bykov to pull Varlamov and skate with a 6-on-3 man-power advantage. Malkin promptly took himself off the ice with a roughing penalty with 1:33 to go.
With the Russians now skating 5-on-3 with an empty net, Vokoun robbed Ovechkin from in close. Finally, with 36 seconds left on the clock, Datsyuk solved Vokoun on a goal that counted, hammering a one-timer off a Kovalchuk cross-ice feed into the net. But Russia never found the equalizer. Vokoun and the Czech defenders staved off the final desperate push, touching off a raucous celebration among the Czech continent in the stands and huge gatherings of fans watching the game at homes and pubs throughout the Czech Republic.
Although not quite up there with the Miracle on Ice, the Czech victory over the Russians in the final game easily ranks as one of the most significant international hockey medal play upsets of the last three decades. In the postgame celebration, Jagr understandably called the win one of the sweetest victories of his storied career. Vokoun, meanwhile, was almost disbelieving of his own performance in a game that people in his home country will forever recall fondly.
"You always read about those great stories," said Vokoun to IIHF.com, "and now it's happened to me."
Next year, the Czechs won't have to travel too far to attempt to defend their gold medal. The 2011 tournament will be played in neighboring Slovakia. This year, most Slovaks were happy to see their former countrymen topple the highly favored Russians. But the mostly friendly rivalry will soon be renewed.