The Czechs clinched top spot in Group A with a 5-4 victory over Switzerland. That result sets up a quarter-final match-up against the USA here in Moscow, while condemning the Swiss to an early exit from the tournament. The Czech win also sparked celebrations for Denmark, which now takes fourth place and can look forward to a quarter-final clash with the Group B winner in St. Petersburg on Thursday.
A come-from-behind win for the Czech Republic might suggest a tight battle in a high-stakes game, but in truth Vladimir Vujtek’s team was superior for much of the game despite a frenetic finale.
Lukas Kaspar, scorer of the second Czech goal, said: “It just went crazy right at the end there and we let them score some goals they should never have got. But overall I think we dominated them throughout the game.”
Switzerland, maybe feeling the pressure of needing a win in regulation to stay in the tournament, made a slow start – outshot 5-0 in the first five minutes and trailing 10-1 on the shot count when a rare breakout earned an unexpected lead midway through the first period.
The goal was an incisive play: two passes saw Reto Schappi and Sven Andrighetto turn defence into attack as Denis Hollenstein went through to beat Pavel Francouz in a one-on-one.
But it was only second Swiss shot of the game and the Czechs continued to dominate most of the play. Roman Cervenka had a chance to tie it up immediately but fanned his shot when open to the right of the net before Michal Birner’s fourth goal of the competition made it 1-1 with three minutes to play in the first. Michal Kempny fired in a shot from the point and it bounced off Birner’s skate to beat Reto Berra.
The middle stanza began in the same vein with the Czechs probing the Swiss defence and when Raphael Diaz hooked a goal-bound Kaspar in the 25th minute the Czech forward converted the penalty shot with aplomb.
Some had questioned whether the Czechs, already assured of a quarter-final spot, would be able to match the motivation of an opponent that had to win. But David Pastrnak stressed that victory also meant a lot to his team.
“We knew they were going to play hard, but for us it was an important game as well,” he said. “We wanted to win the group and go into the quarter-finals with confidence. I think we did a pretty good job. Obviously there were some tough moments, but we just need to continue playing well.”
With its play-off dream almost over, Switzerland upped its game at last. A penalty on the Czechs shifted the momentum of the game and in the latter stages of the second period Francouz found himself under greater pressure. Andrighetto got into a great position, open in the bottom of the circle, only for a misplaced pass to deny him a shooting chance. Moments later Yannick Weber tested the Czech goalie from the point and Vujtek called a time-out to calm his skittish blue-liners and see out the frame with the 2-1 lead intact.
The third period started with a third Czech goal. Martin Zatovic got it, collecting the puck between the hatching and scoring on the glove side after Fabien du Bois lost possession following a face-off.
But the Swiss continued to battle and pulled one back on the power play through Simon Moser. A du Bois slap shot found Francouz’s shoulder and the rebound went straight to Moser’s stick to make it 3-2.
Despite some anxious moments around the Czech net, Switzerland struggled to really test the goalie further and a breakaway saw Tomas Zahorna fire over Berra’s glove with 10 minutes left to play, restoring the two-goal lead for the Czech Republic and calming any nerves in the Danish camp.
Switzerland’s hopes were effectively ended in the 55th minute. Desperately trying to force something on the power play, Patrick Fischer withdrew goalie Berra to play 6-on-4. The gamble backfired: Michal Jordan’s clearance evaded Eric Blum’s attempts to hack it away from danger and bounced into the empty net to put the gift wrapping on the perfect present for Vujtek, who celebrates his 69th birthday today.
There was still time for a brave rearguard action that reduced the margin to a single goal. That “crazy” interlude that Kaspar talked about saw Noah Schneeberger’s deflected effort make it 5-3 before Andrighetto scored from close range with 30 seconds left. The Swiss went for one last push, but when a shot flashed wide of the post there was no way back for the team.
Nino Niederreiter, selected as the best Swiss player of the tournament, summed up the deflation in the locker room. “We weren’t sharp enough in the details,” he said “Today, we just didn’t handle the situation well. It’s disappointing.”