Czech Republic-Finland Preview
Finland needed a tiebreaker to beat out the Czech Republic for a bye to the men's hockey quarterfinals in Vancouver.
Little did the Finns realize just how valuable it would be.
The fifth-seeded Czechs nearly fell victim to a major upset on their way to Wednesday's matchup with Finland, and they'll have to regroup quickly if they hope to move on to the semifinals and have a chance at an Olympic medal.
The Finns and Czechs both finished the preliminary round in second place in their respective groups after each went 2-1, but Finland earned the No. 4 overall seed and the free pass to the quarterfinals by virtue of a better goal differential.
That almost cost the Czech Republic dearly - a shocking development considering its qualification game Tuesday was against lowly Latvia, the last-place team going into the playoff round.
After bursting out to a 2-0 lead and outshooting Latvia 16-4 in the first period, the Czechs struggled for the rest of the game, eventually blowing their lead in the final eight minutes of regulation. They couldn't breathe easy until David Krejci's goal won it 5:10 into overtime.
"If we didn't score, I couldn't go back home," said Krejci of the Boston Bruins.
The absence of veteran forward Jaromir Jagr hurt the Czechs. The former NHL MVP, who now plays in Russia, has an upper-body injury that caused him to miss most of the second period and all of the final period and overtime. His status for Wednesday's contest is unclear.
Czech coach Vladimir Ruzicka said he was hopeful Jagr would play, he was unsure about how long he would last.
"Hopefully, it's nothing serious, and he'll be playing," Krejci said. "But if not, it's going to be about heart. ... It's going to be about how good we are."
Jagr was injured on an illegal hit by Finland's Jarkko Ruutu four years ago when the teams met in the preliminary round at the Turin Games. Ruutu was given a game misconduct, but the Finns went on to win 4-2.
On Tuesday, the Czech Republic had trouble without Jagr, who has two goals and an assist at the Olympics. The team relied on Tomas Vokoun of the Florida Panthers to make several key saves until its offense ended a 54-minute drought without a goal.
"If we want to continue, we will need to play a lot better," Ruzicka said through an interpreter.
Finland will also be hoping to bounce back from a subpar effort in a 3-0 loss to rival Sweden on Sunday in the final game of the preliminary round.
While the defeat didn't cost the Finns a bye, they were disappointed after getting outshot 32-20 and going 0 for 7 on the power play. They had totaled 10 goals in their first two games, wins over Germany and Belarus.
"I'm worried that we have to play better," veteran forward Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Ducks said. "We play like we did (Sunday), we have no chance."
The Finns will also have to play without defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who had a goal and an assist in their first two games. Pitkanen, who plays for the Carolina Hurricanes, received a game misconduct and a one-game suspension for an illegal hit to the head of Sweden's Patric Hornqvist, the leading goal-scorer for the Nashville Predators.
"He's a key part on the power play and obviously on the breakouts he's such a good skater and mobile defenseman and sees the ice well," said defenseman Sami Salo of the hometown Canucks. "Obviously it's a big loss but it opens up a spot for Janne Niskala."
Calgary Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff figures to be in net again for Finland after making 29 saves against the Swedes.
Both teams won medals at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, with Finland claiming silver while the Czechs salvaged a bronze, but the loser of Wednesday's game will go home empty-handed.
The winner will meet the winner of United States-Switzerland in the semifinals.