QUEBEC CITY – Sometimes approaching hockey like a chess grandmaster can be dangerous.
The Czechs were almost too patient for their own good in a 3-2 Qualifying Round win over Belarus on Saturday, prevailing on identical shootout goals by Radim Vrbata and Ales Kotalik.
Both Czech snipers moved in on goal and lifted high backhands over Belarus goalie Vitali Koval. Only Dmitry Meleshko could solve Milan Hnilicka at the other end.
Failing to win in regulation time eliminated the diligent Belarusians from quarter-finals contention. The former Soviet republic previously made the final eight in 2006.
“I am very proud of our Belarusian team,” said coach Curt Fraser. “We played a very good game, a very well-executed game plan, but when it comes to a shootout, it can go either way. We came very close to beating the Czechs for the very first time. The Belarusian team is improving, and we look forward to next year and competing for one of those eight spots.”
For the second straight game, an elite nation required extra time to beat Belarus, which also lost 4-3 to Russia in a shootout on Friday.
“We’re disappointed,” said Sergei Kostitsyn. “Everybody felt good, being able to play well against the Russians and the Czechs, but they beat us in shootouts.”
Koval had another stellar outing in defeat, making 41 saves. Hnilicka needed just 16 for the win.
Tomas Rolinek and Ales Kotalik also scored for the Czechs, and Tomas Plekanec had two assists. Yaroslav Chupris and Andrei Kostitsyn replied for Belarus.
The Czechs smartly controlled most of the scoreless first period, outshooting their opponents 13-5 and barely letting Belarus penetrate their zone on its one power play. But it was the Belarusians who struck first at 18:12, as Chupris gobbled up a loose puck that Hnilicka had tried to push away from the crease, and lifted it over the goalie’s blocker.
During an early second-period Czech man advantage, Koval was shaken up by a slapshot but stayed in the game. The Czechs kept playing keep-away all over the ice and Belarus strove to take away lanes and force them to the outside.
Finally, the Czechs equalized the score when Rolinek dashed to the net on the rush with Plekanec and had a centering pass deflect in off his skate with 3:07 left in the second. The goal was reviewed, but stood since no distinct kicking motion was involved.
Another video review occurred in the first minute of the final stanza, but there was no good news for Belarus, since the goal judge had inadvertently flicked his switch without the puck even close to crossing the line.
Halfway through the third, Andrei Kostitsyn walked over the Czech blueline, and, using defenceman Zbynek Michalek as a partial screen, hammered a slapshot through Hnilicka for a 2-1 Belarus lead.
With 6:22 left, the Czechs made it 2-2 when Kotalik barged to the front of the net and converted a Plekanec centering pass from behind the goal line.
“Tonight we got the goals from the lines that people might not call offensive lines,” said Patrik Elias. “But they came through and it's a good sign for the team.”
Jaroslav Hlinka had a great chance for the winner when he pounced on a puck that bounced off a skate behind the Belarus defence, but couldn’t beat Koval. The Czechs went to the power play with Salei in the box for slashing on the play, but couldn’t convert, and it was off to overtime.
In the first minute, Hlinka sent Martin Erat in with a long stretch pass, which he slipped past Koval on the backhand, but the play was whistled offside. A scrum ensued and the faceoff went back to the Czech end, with Erat taking a misconduct out of frustration.
The Czech Republic won the right to shoot first, and it unfolded as follows (according to the IIHF game-winning shots procedure, in which three different shooters from each team take alternate shots until a decisive goal is scored--and if the game is still tied after three shots by each team, the GWS continues with a tie-break shootout by one player of each team, with the shooting order reversed):
Round 1: CZE, Vrbata - goal, high backhand deke. BLR, Andrei Kostitsyn - Hnilicka glove save.
Round 2: CZE, Elias - Koval save on backhand deke. BLR, Meleshko - goal, high shot
Round 3: CZE, Kotalik - goal, high backhand deke. BLR, Grabovsky - Hnilicka right pad save
The Czechs have their final tune-up for the quarter-finals on Sunday versus Sweden, and Belarus completes its tournament Monday versus Denmark.
“For Belarus the tournament is now practically over, but we'll play a great game, and win against Denmark, for our fans,” said Mikhail Grabovsky.