By Lucas Aykroyd – IIHF.com
On the strength of goals by Filip Koffer and Martin Lang, the Czech Republic upset Russia 2-0 on Sunday night in Edmonton.
It was a goalie duel at Rogers Place. Lukas Parik, a 2019 third-round pick of the L.A. Kings (87th overall) who backed up Lukas Dostal in last year’s seventh-place finish, debuted here with a superb 29-save shutout for the Czechs. Russian starter Yaroslav Askarov made 27 stops.
“Of course, we played great as a team and the guys helped me a lot,” Parik said. “So it’s a great feeling. But we have to refocus for our [next] games.”
The Czechs and Russians are traditional rivals who usually play tight, tense games, and this fit the classic mold. The result also made the Group B battle for playoff positions even more intriguing.
“I guess we got our first kind of obstacle, which is the Czech Republic,” said Russian head coach Igor Larionov. “They play a really solid defensive game. We have to be maybe more determined around the net, finish a lot of shots and get some rebounds and get some dirty goals.”
Both nations aspire to end long gold-medal droughts. The Russians, who fell 4-3 to Canada in the 2020 final, last triumphed in 2011 in Buffalo. The Czechs haven’t struck gold since back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001.
Last year, the Czechs surprised Russia 4-3 to kick off the World Juniors in Ostrava. This year, they needed a bounceback game after opening with a 7-1 loss to Sweden, and they got it, once again at Russia’s expense.
“I think it’s a good lesson for us and we’ll get better,” Russian defenceman Yan Kuznetsov said.
Larionov’s top dogs like captain Vasili Podkolzin and Rodion Amirov were held in check, as the Czechs worked hard and blocked shots aplenty.
“We are pretty sore, but it’s the feeling of the win,” said Lang. “We will do it again next game.”
In a scoreless first period, Russia had the better of the early play, but the tide then shifted toward the Czechs. Askarov, the 2020 first-round pick of the Nashville Predators (11th overall), had to make a fine blocker save when Adam Raska busted loose on left wing. Raska was back in action after serving a one-game suspension for a boarding incident in the 6-0 pre-tournament win over Slovakia.
The Czechs slowed down the skillful Russians with physical defence and smart counterattacks — similar to the golden era of the Czech men’s national team (1998-2001). The acrobatic Askarov flirted with disaster when a long shot slipped under his arm and over the net and he lost his goal stick. Parik also got lucky with a shot that rang off his cross bar.
Raska shook up Amirov in an early second-period collision near the benches. Askarov had a long head man pass picked off by Jakub Rychlovsky, but he stretched out his left pad in Sergei Bobrovsky-like fashion to foil the Czech forward’s backhand move. Near the midway mark, Parik was ready when Maxim Groshev swooped in for a chance.
At 16:38, the Czech counterattack provided the first goal. After the Russians bottled up the Czechs in their zone for more than a minute, defenceman Shakir Mukhamadullin turned over the puck at the opposing blue line, and Rychlovsky pounced, racing down left wing at the end of a long shift. He pivoted deep in the Russian zone and found Koffer, who pounded the puck past a lunging Askarov.
In the third period, Lang made it 2-0 at 5:07 on another counterattack. He blocked Daniil Chaika’s shot at the blue line and got a breakaway, scoring blocker side on Askarov.
“I don’t care about the goals, but everyone sees the blocked shots,” said Lang. “I think that’s the main thing. Just block shots and help the teams. That’s just a gift for me to score a goal.”
The Russians couldn’t generate a shot on their second power play of the game, and even when Czech D-man Simon Kubicek was sent off for a hit from behind with 10:30 left, Russia only got two shots on their third PP. It wasn’t reminiscent of the 1980’s Green Unit.
Larionov pulled Askarov for the extra attacker with under two minutes to play, and the Russians got one more power play with less than a minute left. But the Czechs sacrificed their bodies to keep the puck out and celebrated in a dogpile at the final buzzer.
The last time Russia was shut out at the World Juniors was the 1-0 overtime loss to Sweden in the 2012 gold medal game.
On Tuesday, the Czechs take on the Americans, while Russia faces newly promoted Austria.
“It’s just a hockey game,” said Lang. “We’ve got some plans for the game, and we have to get it done.”
Russian goalie coach Nikolai Khabibulin, who won Olympic gold in 1992 and backstopped Tampa Bay to the 2004 Stanley Cup, was not with the team. He has returned home since his father passed away. His duties are being handled by Rashit Davydov, who hails from Larionov’s native Voskresensk.