The United States and Czech Republic went toe-to-toe in an energetic semifinal game in Breclav, with the enthusiastic crowd being almost as big a story as the game itself. Ryan Wagner broke a 3-3 tie with a breakaway goal with 11:14 to go, and an empty-netter made it a 5-3 final.
Penalties: 7:2. PP goals: 0:2. SH goals: 0:0.
Referees: Fraňo, Šindler – Barvíř, Blümel. Attendance: 1500.
It was a physical affair right from the start, with the crowd feeding off of every hit, and the players in turn feeding from the crowd energy in a type of atmosphere unusual for August hockey. Czech captain Dominik Masin led his team into the hit parade on the opening shift by throwing a punishing check in the corner of his own zone, and for the first few minutes the Czechs were all over the Americans. The US team did start to push back, however. Keegan Iverson stapled a Czech player into the boards, and then Aaron Hayden got a little bit too overzealous and took a charging penalty at the 3:16 mark.
Already revved up, the crowd stood, beating drums and chanting, and the Czech power play worked the puck around the attacking zone for a big one-time slapper from Pavel Zacha, who found some room inside the near post to open the scoring.
One of the by-products of the energetic atmosphere was nerves, and ill-advised plays at times. Back on their heels in the early going, the Americans started taking advantage of bad passes and gaining momentum. Just shy of the period´s midpoint, they tied it when Cody Milan dropped the puck to Jake Wahlin, whose wrist shot beat Vitek Vanecek on the near side.
Late in the period, the Americans were starting to take over the game. On a power play, their furious forechecking forced the puck over the goal line, but the goal was negated as the referee ruled Vanecek had it stopped and was then pushed across the line with the puck. But just as that power play was ending, Nick Schmaltz sent a shot through traffic that Vanecek got a piece of, but then dribbled across the line for the go-ahead goal, and the Americans went into the intermission with the lead and the momentum.
Midway through the second period, the Czechs tied the game, but the Americans regained the lead just two minutes later. Once again, the dangerous Czech power play cashed in when Jakub Vrana got open and had all the time in the world to pick the low corner. Then two minutes later the Americans went back in front when a rushed clearing attempt landed on the stick of Justin Schmaltz, who made no mistake.
"Pucks were bouncing out there, it´s so warm out there that it affects the quality of the ice, but both teams play on the same ice and there were a lot of turnovers both ways," explained Schmaltz, whose 2 points gives him a share of the tournament scoring lead. He also added that the noise was also sometimes a factor in the less-than-perfect communication at times. "Obviously the Czech Republic has the home crowd. There was lots of noise, so it was awesome, great atmosphere, but sometimes it was really loud and tough to hear."
Every time it looked like the Americans were taking over, however, the Czechs came back with immense pressure. The last half of the second period was filled with Czech scoring chances. Right after the goal, David Pastrnak had a breakaway but was denied by Nedjelkovic. Later on, Vrana and Radem Vesely had glorious chances. Finally, in the last three minutes of the middle frame the puck rang off the crossbar and up into the netting above the glass, and the crowd stood up and then groaned in unison.
"We really played at a high tempo today," said Vaclav Karabacek, who has been strong all tournament on the left side of the top Czech line. "Our only regret is all the missed chances."
Karabacek did something about that in the last minute of the second period when he won a battle for the puck behind the net and centered it out front to Zacha, who one-timed it off the post and in for the equalizer in the last minute of the middle frame.
The third period was probably the most conservative of the game, but chances for the Americans seemed to mount up as the midpoint approached, and with under 12 minutes to play captain Ryan Wagner got in behind the Czech defence, picked up a loose puck and put a forehand deke on Vanecek to put the USA back in front.
Naturally, the Czechs started pushing more after that, but the Americans really seemed to finally play their best hockey in the last half of the third period. Head coach Bob Corkum even called a timeout with just under 10 minutes to play to settle his troops down. In the late going, Czech coach Jakub Petr also called a timeout and then removed his goalie for a sixth skater, but wasn´t able to mount much of an offensive and Cody Milan scored an empty-net goal with 5.4 seconds left to put the game away.
Even after it was over, the Czech fans roared in appreciation of the effort of their team in this game, possibly foreshadowing the support they will give in Saturday´s bronze medal game against Russia in Breclav.
"We´ll go into the game against Russia playing to win," said Karabacek. "We´ll do everything we can to get that bronze medal."
As for the Americans, they return to Piestany to take on Canada in the tournament final. Schmaltz summed up, "Obviously, they´re a great team. We´re just going to have to play our game and hopefully we come out with a win."
Bob Corkum (head coach, Team USA): When you play in the semifinals, you know you´re going to face a quality opponent. We had a tough time with them in a pre-tournament game--I think we´ve improved since then and we have to expect that they improved too. It was a hard-fought win and certainly our hats are off to the Czech team--they gave it everything they had and both teams were exhausted out there. We didn´t have the start we wanted, but that´s the kind of thing that happens after a long bus trip and bad ice and things like that, the boys just had to find a way to battle through it. This is certainly a feather in their cap. They´ve worked extremely hard, they´ve come together as a team and they´re trying to execute the game plan that the coaching staff has put in front of them, but they´re not satisfied, I can tell you that. They´re going to give everything they have tomorrow and see if they can win a gold medal.
Jakub Petr (head coach, Team Czech Republic) Today, the boys played to the limit. They left everything out there on the ice. When we fell behind, they dug down and managed to tie it twice. Then in the third period, it was one of those things where one mistake on poor communication between players decides the game. If there´s one thing that was a problem today, it was mistakes like that. We have to be more solid. While it´s a shame that we won´t be playing in the final game, the players need to understand that nothing comes easy at this level--it has to be earned. Everything that we work on in practice is for moments like that, so that´s why we work on them. We will now get ready for Russia and try to beat them. The boys will be fresh and ready to go.