VANCOUVER – Wednesday's game between the Czech Republic and Slovakia was hockey entertainment at its best. Unfortunately for the Slovaks, all they got was memories, as Jaromir Jagr led his team to a 3-1 win.
Jagr scored the game winning goal and added an assist.Click here for the photo gallery of the game.
"That was a lot of work. I haven't played a game like this in a while. It is different hockey," said Jagr.
But Jaromir looked almost the same as ten years ago, even to teammates.
“He’s excited to be here, and he’s still a big part of this team. He’s so strong on the puck so he’s going to get his shots. Even if he doesn’t score, if he works like he did tonight, that’s all we can ask from him,” said Czech captain Patrik Elias.
Brothers. Up in arms. That’s just the way it is when the Czech Republic and Slovakia meet in hockey. The teams are so alike, they have the same style, the languages are alike, and the nations share a lot of the history. They used to be together, but now they’re not. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are like film directors James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow - who used to be married - meeting at the Oscars when both have been nominated for Best Director.
Neither one wants to lose. Ever.
The nations had met twice in the Olympic history, with the Czech Republic coming out on top both times. In Lillehammer in 1994, the Czechs beat Slovakia in a game for 5th place, 7-1, and in Turin in 2006, Slovakia’s path was cut short by a loss to the Czechs in the quarterfinal, 3-1.
But a lot has changed, too, since Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Both teams have a player wearing number 68. Veteran superstar Jaromir Jagr wears his in honor of the Prague Spring. Slovakia’s defenceman Milan Jurcina, 11 years’ his junior, wears his as a tribute to Jagr.
Everything being interwoven like that, it was only fitting that the game’s first shot towards was Tomas Plekanec’s slapshot from the slot, which Slovakia’s goaltender Jaroslav Halak turned away. Plekanec and Halak are teammates in the NHL, playing for the Montreal Canadiens.
While the other games in the men’s tournament have seen teams trying to feel out each other in the beginning, the Czechs and Slovaks went full throttle from the get-go, taking turns with the attacks.
“We had a lot of chances, even though our powerplay didn’t work they way we’d like to," Elias said.
Nine minutes into the period, Elias and Martin Havlat cycled the puck in the Slovak corner, Havlat played it to Mirolav Blatak on the blueline. Blatak took a step forward and sent a wrist shot towards Halak’s goal, and Elias was there to deflect the puck to the back of the net for 1-0.
"I thought we played a good first period. We stopped skating a few times and then they managed to score a goal, in the second," said Tomas Plekanec.
Slovakia came back to the second period with a vengeance. In their first shift, Slovakia’s top line took the puck to the Czech zone. Then in a matter of seconds, Marcel Hossa found Marian Gaborik in the slot, he stopped the puck and fired a wrist shot to the top corner of the net, beating left-handed Tomas Vokoun on the blocker side.
Jagr showed that he’s still, at 38, a world class player, creating several good scoring chances and then, with 2:04 remaining in the period, Roman Cervenka found him right on Slovakia’s blueline, and sent him on a breakaway. Jagr, finishing off a long shift, fired a wrist shot from the slot and beat Halak low on the glove side to give Czechs a 2-1 lead in the game.
"I think we did lots of good things tonight, but we got into penalty trouble. That's what made a difference. We gave them too much momentum," Marian Hossa said.
"When it was 1-1, we played well. Obviously, we hit a post and after that, they scored a goal. That changed the momentum," he added.
When Slovakia's captain Zdeno Chara took a hooking minor a minute and a half later, Coach Vladimir Ruzicka put Jagr back on the ice together with Elias and Plekanec to play out the second period. The puck ended up in front of the net, and Jagr tried to beat Halak with a backhander behind his back. Halak made a save, but Plekanec was first to the rebound, and he gave the Czechs a two-goal lead, tipping the puck in with one hand, with just two seconds remaining in the period.
"We finished the game well, we played with great responsibility, and defensively well,” Elias said.
The Czechs managed to keep Slovakia off the board in the third, nursing their lead. A half a minute before the end, Slovakia took a timeout, and went on the attack, but came up short.
However, tonight belonged to Jagr.
“He’s a great guy, a lot of fun in the locker room, always joking, and we have a great chemistry in the team. That’s where it starts,” said Havlat.