COLOGNE, Germany – It’s up to Jaromir Jagr and the unheralded Czechs to try and derail the Russian Express.
The host Germans came painfully close on a dramatic semifinal Saturday at the IIHF World Hockey Championship, but Pavel Datsyuk scored with less than two minutes remaining to give Russia a 2-1 victory—its 27th straight at the tournament.
They’ll be going for a third consecutive world championship gold Sunday against a Czech team that started slowly before reeling off four straight victories in must-win games.
Jagr has been the heart and soul of the team and desperately wants to add another gold to a collection that already includes one from the 1998 Olympics and 2005 world championship. The 38-year-old knows it might be his last chance.
“I’m almost done,” he said. “I’m happy for the young guys. Two weeks ago nobody gave us a chance. I’m so happy for these guys—now we’re going to the final.”
Russia has rolled through another world championship with a roster that includes 14 members of the Olympic team. That group has vowed to put the painful Vancouver experience behind it by capturing gold here.
One more obstacle stands in their way.
“Overall, they have a group of guys who have hung in there,” Russian forward Sergei Fedorov said of the Czechs. “(Jaromir) is a great player and he’s their leader. It’s going to be quite a task. But we know Jaromir because he plays in the KHL, we know what he’s capable of.”
Added captain Ilya Kovalchuk: “They have some dangerous players—Jagr—and a very dangerous team.”
The Russians came dangerously close to an upset at the hands of the surprising Germans, who were buoyed by a noisy sellout crowd at Lanxess Arena. Germany took a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal by Marcel Goc and found itself tied late after Evgeni Malkin scored his fifth of the tournament for Russia.
Datsyuk’s winner came at 18:10 of the third period following a turnover at the other end of the ice.
The game was much closer than anyone would have forecasted and may have shown that the Russians aren’t invincible. German forward Andre Rankel thinks they can be beaten.
“We were close today,” he said. “But it’s not going to be easy. They have a great team. You can see that out there with that offensive power that they have.”
In Sunday’s other game, the Germans will be going for their first world championship medal since 1934 when they face Sweden for bronze.
The Swedes will still be stinging after the way their semifinal ended. Leading 2-1 late in the game, Swedish forward John Harju took a shot at the empty net—prompting an icing call when he narrowly missed.
After the ensuing faceoff in the Swedish zone, defenceman Karel Rachunek beat Jonas Gustavsson to tie the game with just eight seconds to play.
“What can I say? I’ve been playing hockey for a long, long time and this happens once, maybe twice in your career,” said Czech goalie Tomas Vokoun. “In this kind of magnitude game, to score at that point is pretty rare.”
The Czech Republic polished off a 3-2 victory in the shootout as Lukas Kaspar and Jan Marek each beat Gustavsson while Vokoun turned away two of three Swedish shooters.
Tomas Mojzis had the other goal in regulation for the Czechs while Harju and Andeas Engqvist replied for Sweden.
The Czechs have found themselves on quite a run after beginning the tournament with extremely modest expectations. Jagr blasted a group of veteran players who declined an invitation to the event and warned that the team could be relegated.
They ended up coming within one loss of missing the quarter-finals completely before putting together consecutive victories over Latvia, Canada, Finland and Sweden. Now a squad with just four NHLers has an opportunity to win its first world championship gold since 2005.
“It’s obviously a great feeling the way we made it,” said Vokoun. “We struggled in the preliminary round and we almost didn’t make it. We were in a must-win situation against Canada. We could have been sent home but the guys have been battling hard.
“Nobody handed it to us.”
But can they do anything to stop Russia?
“We’ll certainly try to give it our best shot,” said Vokoun.