BUFFALO – The old put-all-the-pressure-on-the-favorite tactic clearly did not work for Switzerland and its folksy coach, Christian Wohlwend, in the quarterfinal of the World Junior Championship against Canada. It’s one thing to respect your opponent, but it’s clearly another to basically put your team on par with the Washington Generals. When you expect to lose, that’s generally what happens.
No such mistake will be made by the Czechs, who face Canada tomorrow in their semifinal game, which marks the first time the Czechs have made it this far in the WJC since winning the bronze medal in 2005. That year, the Czechs lost 3-1 in the semifinal to a Canadian team that included Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf and Jeff Carter and is regarded as one of the most dominant Canadian entries in the history of the tournament. The Canadian team 13 years later is not near as star-studded, so this Czech team already has a better shot. And if goaltender Josef Korenar plays the way he did in the quarterfinal against Finland, well, you know what they say about a hot goalie.
Korenar will have to play at least as well, if not better, against Canada in order for the Czechs to even have a chance to advance to the gold medal game. And in Korenar, the Czechs have a goaltender who is accustomed to beating the odds. After going through two drafts without being taken, which represents a total of 428 players, Korenar went to the San Jose Sharks’ rookie camp and impressed the organization so much that it signed him to an entry-level contract.
“That was all Nabby,” said Sharks’ director of scouting Tim Burke, referring to former Sharks goalie and current goaltending development coach Evgeni Nabokov. “He worked with the kid in rookie camp and said, ‘I think we have something here and if we let him go, somebody else might grab him.’ He’s not a big kid, but he moves really well. I think the kid reminded Nabby of himself a little bit.”
Like a lot of goalies, Korenar thrives on an abundance of work. And there was no shortage of that in the quarterfinal when he stopped 51 of Finland’s 54 shots in overtime and regulation and four of five in the shootout. He called it the best and busiest game of his career. And he hopes he has a chance to say the same thing after facing Canada. “I think it’s better for a goalie to get more shots than, like, 20 in a game,” Korenar said. “I like it if it’s 30 and more shots.”
The Czechs are clearly underdogs in the final, but will not be pushovers. Much of this team is made up of players who stunned the hockey world by winning the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament two years ago. It has some legitimate NHL prospects in the form of drafted players such as Martin Necas (Carolina Hurricanes), Filip Chytil (New York Rangers), Ostap Safin (Edmonton Oilers) and Libor Hajek (Tampa Bay Lightning) and top prospects for the 2018 draft in Filip Zadina and Martin Kaut. There is a certain swagger to this group to be sure. For example, Kristian Reichel asked to be the first shooter in the shootout against Finland because he had seen the tape of this father, former NHLer Robert, score against Canada in the semifinal game of the 1998 Olympics and wanted to duplicate his feat.
“We have lots of good guys,” Reichel said. “We are in the best of the four now and we must play like a team. We want to grab a medal now. Anything is possible. We play like a team. In other years, we didn’t play like a team and it was more individual. Now, we’re a team. We eat together, we do lots of things together, we sleep together and we played lots of game together. The group is very tight and that’s the key to our success.”
It’s not often you see a coach, even less frequently a European coach, pull his goalie with three minutes left in a game. But Czech coach Pesan did that and it paid off in the quarterfinal. He said earlier this season, with his Bili Tygri Liberec team down 4-1 in a Czech League game, he pulled his goalie with more than 11 minutes remaining. His team scored twice to make it 4-3, but could not get the tying goal.
“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Pesan said. “You’re either a hero or a zero, right?”
Against all odds, Pesan is hoping his team can refer to itself as the former after the semifinal.
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