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Czech List: Palat, Hertl, Prospects Signal Rise in Czech Hockey

By on May 9, 2014 in North American with 0 Comments

By Radoslav Vavřina, Czech Correspondent for All Habs Hockey Magazine

LIBEREC, CZE — After years, Czechs can finally call the season their Under-18 national team had a successful one. Two medals from major events, a couple of players ready for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft and great showings by underage players, combined with what two Calder-category NHL rookies and one of the top rookie netminders in the league, are sure signs that Czech hockey is thriving again.

The season will never be forgotten and it all started back in August on the Czech soil in Břeclav where the prestigeous annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup took place took place. It’s called the real World Championship of the U18 category since there are so many prospects still playing in the CHL playoffs at the time when the official one takes place.

Czechs had a great tournament, finishing third only to Canada and the United States and finally being able to celebrate a medal, the bronze one. It was just a month and a couple of weeks later when Tomáš Hertl stole the show from Nathan MacKinnon with a strong start to the season. His bid for Calder was, however, erased later by an injury.

With Hertl out, even the Under-18 national team started struggling a little at various events, but two other Czech rookies took care of keeping the country in the Calder race. While Marek Mazanec did a great job covering for injured Pekka Rinne in Nashville, the real deal and eventually the only Czech nominated for Calder was in Tampa Bay.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Ondřej Palát profited from playing on the same line with fellow rookie Tyler Johnson and either Martin St. Louis or later on Steven Stamkos and had a season to remember, including his first playoff appearance and participation at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Most likely, MacKinnon will receive the trophy, but the Czech hockey school seems to be reemerging.

That was only proved in late April by the Under-18 national team in eastern Finland. Hosted by the cities of Lappeenranta and Imatra, the event witnessed a likely scenario that, nonetheless, surprised some people. The Czechs came in strong with a goaltender and ten skaters who have experience with professional hockey and/or still play among pros.

And those very players turned out to be MVPs, especially the netminder, Vítek Vaněček, forwards Jakub Vrána and David Pastrňák, defenseman Filip Pyrochta and joined by Gatineau Olympiques’ import forward Václav Karabáček. And even those who play junior hockey had a great tournament and the result was simply awesome.

The Czechs stormed into the tourney by beating Denmark 9-2, but got quickly silenced by the Americans in the very next game, 3-0. Vital matchup with Finns followed and the Czechs prevailed, beating the hosts in shootout. Left to play in the preliminary round was the emerging stronghold of Switzerland, but the Czechs were stellar and two goals by underage forward Pavel Zacha sure helped their case.

The underage players were a big part of the story and the best thing about them is that they will be at the next Ivan Hlinka in August and also at the Under-18 World Juniors next April. Those include backup goaltender Daniel Vladař, versatile defenseman Jakub Zbořil (whose older brother played in the QMJHL), big winger Pavel Zacha and a trio of fellow forwards Michael Špaček, Filip Chlapík and David Kaše who was a big story as well.

(Photo by hokej.cz)

(Photo by hokej.cz)

Quarterfinals saw the Czechs up against Russia. So the two teams that battled in the bronze-medal game at the Ivan Hlinka met again. The tight game wasn’t decided in sixty and so overtime heroics by top prospect Jakub Vrána put the Czechs to semifinals. Already a success.

In the semis, the Czechs faced Canada. Not many believed and even I had to say I hoped for a better matchup as a win looked unlikely. But, the Czechs had a 3-0 lead midway through the second period. Canada, however, rallied back impressively and was able to tie the game with eight minutes left to play in regulation.

The Cardiac Czechs were right where they know what to do. OT for the third time at the tournament, both of the two previous were victorious. And it was David Kaše who took advantage of a misplay by one of Canadian defencemen and delivered his team to the finals.

At the very top of their careers so far, the game that they will all remember, nothing could have been easy as the Americans were the other finalists. But it didn’t matter, we were proud already and a gold sure would be amazing, but that silver medal sure is a good-looking one.

You know Americans, they got this program in Michigan and their Under-18 national team spends the entire season together so they’re like a family. They were beaten by Switzerland in the opening game, but had since allowed just six goals in four games.

Back when the tournament took place in the Czech Republic two years ago, they beat Sweden in the finals, 7-0. It sured looked like another strong final by the Americans as they scored three quick goals in the opening eight minutes. However, the Czechs were able to play at least some hockey with them and the final score was 5-2, a well-deserved victory by the United States.

The future is bright though and sure enough there will be players to take over from Tomáš Plekanec, Aleš Hemský, Milan Michálek, Radim Vrbata or Marek Židlický when the time is right. And the Habs are going to have a late first-round pick so maybe one of the top Czech prospects will bring the future of our hockey right to your town.

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