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Look back at memorable season for Czech junior national team

By on July 19, 2014 in IIHF with 0 Comments

By Radoslav Vavřina, Lead Writer, The Czech List

Czech Under-18 national team photo following the final game of the U18 WJC at Laappenranta, Finland. Photo courtesy of IIHF.

Czech Under-18 national team photo following the final game of the U18 WJC at Laappenranta, Finland. Photo courtesy of IIHF.

Just like every year, it started in August and ended it late June. The 2013-14 season of the Czech junior national team and its categories, however, wasn’t just like every other year. For a first time after seasons that made people believe Czech hockey is heading nowhere, our juniors rebounded and had one hell of a campaign, scoring medals and draft positions.

Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup

As said earlier, it all started in August and it started on home ground. To honor late coach Ivan Hlinka, one of those responsible for the miracle that happened in Nagano, Japan, in 1998 when the Czech national team won gold medal after eliminating Canada and Russia from the Olympic Games, the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup has been considered an unofficial Under-18 World Junior Championship.

In traditional setting of the town of Břeclav, close to Slovak and Austrian border, where summers are as hot as they come in this part of Europe and fans as passionate for hockey as anywhere in the world, the Czechs started their unlikely medal quest in a modest way, yet full of expectations of what might come. After all, there were big names on the roster already.

Ivan Hlinka has always been a place where Canada dominated for some reason, much more than at any other top junior hockey event of such caliber. And so meeting the cradle of hockey in the tourney opener might not have been the best thing for the Czechs and they would end up losing the game, 4-0, as 1,300 spectators saw the North American hegemon capitalize on 3 of its 7 powerplays.

Just one day later, a sort of resurrection took place. Switzerland was the next challenger of the Czech in group stage and they have been getting better year after year. Powered by flashy offensive weapon Kevin Fiala, who happens to be of Czech ancestry and speaks the language, the Swiss led 3-0 after twenty and things looked bad.

Vítek Vaněček stopping Swiss forward Denis Malgin in shootout. Photo by Eva Solaříková

Vítek Vaněček stopping Swiss forward Denis Malgin in shootout. Photo by Eva Solaříková

The atmosphere in the building got a little better when Jakub Vrána scored the first Czech goal of the tourney at the halfway mark of the game, but little fans did know about how long they’d need to wait for another one. And as time started running out, chances were more abundant for the hosting side and the fans started seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

With less than a minute left, big forward Pavel Jenyš cut the lead to one and just seconds later, blueliner Filip Pyrochta found the back of the net to tie things up. And as overtime failed to produce a winner, shootout would be required. Vrána scored the clinching goal and the Czechs pulled off a memorable comeback win.

The Czechs needed a regulation win in order to advance and facing Sweden didn’t help them. However, they played a perfect game in which they had two three-goal leads and the Swedish-based forward David Pastrňák ended up scoring two goals and adding an assist to lift his team up for the victory.

Under-18 national team captain Dominik Mašín bringing the cup for bronze-medal game win to his teammates at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Břeclav. Photo by Roman Kantor

Under-18 national team captain Dominik Mašín bringing the cup for bronze-medal game win to his teammates at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Břeclav. Photo by Roman Kantor

In semifinals, the Czechs squared off against Team USA and fought bravely against yet another big-time junior national team. 2015 draft prospect Pavel Zacha would open the scoring five minutes in and would add one more goal in the game, but that wasn’t enough as the Americans scored five times and won 5-3.

Bronze-medal game had Czechs facing Russia in what could be the day that would determine if the tournament was a success or not. Vrána opened the scoring midway through the second and Pastrňák added another goal soon after. But the Russians would come back and tie the score only to see Lukáš Vopelka, another Swedish-based forward, score with a minute left and claim the bronze for the Czechs.

Under-20 World Juniors

There were high hopes for the Under-20 national team prior to the U20 World Juniors in Malmo, Sweden, as well. But after all, the team was led by the same players that carried the Under-18 national team to the bronze success, with some support from older CHLers like Radek Faksa, Petr Šidlík or Marek Langhamer.

The opening game with USA sure made the Czechs return onto the ground as the Americans scored two goals in first three minutes and ended up winning 5-1. Another big opponent was up next as Canada was getting ready to destroy the Czechs.

However, power forward David Kämpf opened the scoring eight minutes in and a wild shootout would ensue in the rest of the game. Sam Reinhart tied the score, Michal Plutnar made it 2-1, Jonathan Drouin 2-2, Vojtěch Tomeček 3-2, Aaron Ekblad 3-3, Jakub Vrána 4-3, Charles Hudon 4-4. That sent the game to OT and subsequently, to the actual shootout where Dominik Simon would score the winner pulling off a remarkable deke to beat goalie Jake Paterson.

Plutnar would get suspended for one game after he pushed a linesman going after Connor McDavid who fired the puck long after a period-ending buzzer and the Czech would end up hitting a rock-solid wall getting shut out by Germany 3-0. Slovakia was the final opponent in preliminary round and the Czechs needed to win which they did, by a score of 4-1, giving their brothers no chance at all.

Michal Plutnar celebrating his goal against Canada with teammates. Photo courtesy of IIHF.

Michal Plutnar celebrating his goal against Canada with teammates. Photo courtesy of IIHF.

Both Slovaks and Czechs would advance as Germany got eliminated in the group, but neither would get past the next stage. The Czechs met Finland and played a great game, leading 3-1 at one point of the second period. Suomi, however, battled back and scored four unanswered to overcome the opposition and eventually become the gold medalist.

Under-18 World Juniors

Prior to the final big junior hockey event of the year, there was a huge sense of expectation surrounding the Under-18 national team and even a lot of confidence coming out of players. All year long, there was this feeling. The feeling that this is the year, this is the chance to make big success again.

Tourney opener saw Czechs battle with Denmark and win by seven goals, 9-2. Vrána and Václav Karabáček scored two goals each, but the nine-goal performance wasn’t repeated the next day when the Americans shut out the Czech team 3-0, marching towards yet another U18 World Junior gold.

A perfect ending to the preliminary round was required and the Czechs met expectations. First, they got two points for beating Finland in shootout, 4-3, with Vrána and Pastrňák scoring in the tie-breaker. Then, the Swiss looked to score a big win over the Czechs, but Zacha came up big scoring twice in the third period to ensure a 4-2 victory.

Quarterfinal was just behind the door and the Czechs were set to meet Russia in the rematch of the Ivan Hlinka bronze-medal game. In another wild game, Vrána opened the scoring and the Red Machine looked determined to come back every time that would happen. And so the score was 2-2 after sixty. Vrána would score the OT winner six minutes into the fourth period, giving Russia no chance to bounce back.

David Pastrňák carrying the puck during the final game at the U18 World Juniors in Finland. Photo courtesy of IIHF.

David Pastrňák carrying the puck during the final game at the U18 World Juniors in Finland. Photo courtesy of IIHF.

Overtime heroics resumed in semifinals which, however, saw the Czechs taking an unlikely 3-0 lead over Team Canada in just thirty-two minutes. The Canadians would have an impressive second half of the game and that set up the OT once again and this time it was 2015 draft prospect David Kaše capitalizing following a bad turnover by Canada in their own zone.

Of course, it was USA who faced the Czechs in the gold-medal game and that was no good. Just like always, Americans took a quick multi-goal lead, this team leading 3-0 in eight minutes. The final score was 5-2 as only Jiří Smejkal and David Kaše were able to beat Alex Nedeljkovic that day.

2014 NHL Entry Draft

Seven out of eight Czechs selected in the NHL draft were national team members. Both first-round selections, Jakub Vrána (Washington, 13th) and David Pastrňák (Boston, 25th) played at both Under-18 and Under-20 level. Second-round pickups Dominik Mašín (Tampa Bay, 35th), Vítek Vaněček (Washington, 39th) and Václav Karabáček (Buffalo, 49th) were all Under-18 national team members as was Pavel Jenyš, drafted in seventh round by Minnesota, who missed the U18 World Juniors. Ondřej Kaše (Anaheim, 205th) only played for the Under-20 national team and Richard Nejezchleb (NY Rangers, 122nd) didn’t represent and neither IIHF level.

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