By Any Potts –

Czechia’s Olympic debut just gets better and better. After an opening-day win over China, the Czech women followed up with victory over Sweden. Back-to-back successes put the tournament newcomer close to securing a quarter-final berth, suggesting that a new contender could be emerging in European women’s hockey.

Two goals from Tereza Vanisova, part of the significant Swedish-based party on the Czech roster, paced this victory. She opened the scoring late in the first period and got the killer marker to make it 3-1 with six minutes to play in the third.

Not that Vanisova is getting carried away with the Czech performances so far. Despite back-to-back wins, she still wants more from the offence.

“I think both [of my goals] were important,” she said. “It was a tough game and we need to score more goals. We had many chances, we are a real good offensive team, but we have to be better at this. We got so many chances and I believe we will get better with each game.”

Meanwhile, for Sweden it’s a very different story at Beijing 2022. For many years, the Damkronorna were tipped as the nation most likely to bridge the gap to the North American giants. Olympic silver in Torino in 2006 highlighted the country’s quality and, more recently, the Swedish U18s won World Championship silver ahead of Canada in 2018.

Since then, though, things have gone awry. Relegation from the top division of the World Championship in 2019 came as a shock – and also obliged Sweden to go through qualification for these Games. Now, on arrival in Beijing, the team has suffered back-to-back losses and is in danger of missing the knock-out stages for the first time.

“We didn’t perform the full 60 minutes,” admitted captain Michelle Lowenhielm. “We didn’t trust ourselves and believe in ourselves the full game. We cannot win games like that. The Czechs are a good team.”

Undaunted by Sweden’s big reputation, the Czechs set the tone in the first shift when Vanisova tested Emma Soderberg on a solo rush. Sweden’s goalie got her pad behind that one and was destined to deploy all of her arsenal to stem a rampant Czech offence in the opening stanza.

Within four minutes, the shot count read 6-0, and Soderberg was scrambling to make a stick save from Vendula Pribylova after padding away Daniela Pejsova’s wrister. A Czech power play pushed the shot count to 12-0, with the width of a post protecting Soderberg’s net after another Pribylova attempt deflected off Anna Kjellbin’s skate before bobbling to safety.

It took the Damkronorna until 11:34 to register a first shot at Klara Peslarova in the Czech net but that did little to halt the procession of chances at the other end. Dominika Laskova was the next to test Soderberg, snatching an interception, dangling her way to the top of the paint and scooping in a backhand effort that the goalie beat away. Sweden’s problems weren’t helped by an injury to defender Johanna Fallman, who needed treatment after a collision with Vanisova but late in the frame there was a first clear chance for Ulf Lundberg’s team when Sofie Lundin tested Peslarova on the short side.

Immediately after that, though, Czechia grabbed the goal it had threatened from the opening seconds. Vanisova, at the heart of so much of her team’s work in the first period, was the scorer. The 26-year-old, who plays her club hockey with Leksands in Sweden, jumped on a loose puck in her own zone and hared down the ice, holding off the attentions of Jessica Adolfsson to get to the doorstep and stuff the puck beyond Soderberg at last on 18:23.

It was a just reward for Czechia’s impressive start, but the goalscorer disagreed with suggestions that her team made it look easy.

“We knew it wouldn’t be easy and that’s been confirmed,” Vanisova said. “The China game was not easy and now against Sweden it was a quite difficult, tight game. 

“I’m glad that we battled through and won it. Now we have to prepare for the next games and improve on some little details.”

There was almost an immediate response when Lina Ljungblom dinged one off the post during a Swedish power play late just before the first intermission, but the Czechs took a fully deserved lead into the break.
The second period began with Sweden on the power play and that heralded an improved performance. The Czechs killed the penalty but there were encouraging signs when Felizia Wikner-Zienkiewicz’s work behind the net created dangerous opportunities for Josefin Bouveng and Emma Nordin.

However, a Swedish power play led to a second Czech goal when Klara Hymlarova snaffled a loose pass away from Maja Nylen-Persson on the blue line and won the foot-race with the young Swedish defender before going five-hole to beat Soderberg again.

“I knew I was going five-hole, I knew it immediately,” said Hymlarova of her goal.

Late in the middle stanza Sweden got on the scoreboard when Emma Muren redirected Linnea Johansson’s diagonal feed. Muren’s deft touch steered the puck through her own legs and between Peslarova’s pads to set up an intriguing third period.

“We turned it around but we turned it around too late,” Lowenhielm added. “The beginning wasn’t good enough. We got to come out flying, to come out with confidence and we didn’t do that. It’s just tough to do that against a good team like this.”

However, the Swedes were unable to grasp that lifeline. In a final stanza with relatively few clear-cut chances, the Czechs engineered the first big one midway through the play when Vanisova led a 3-on-1 rush. This time, though, she fluffed her lines, firing wildly over the top when her team-mates were better placed.

That might have been a reprieve for Sweden but instead Vanisova sealed the verdict in the 55th minute when she stripped Adolfsson of the puck and advanced to win another up-close duel with Soderberg to make it 3-1.

“That third goal was the most important,” Hymlarova added. “It was a one-goal game when we scored it and after that, well, we couldn’t chill but we knew that things were going well.”