Czechs, Slovaks win three months before Worlds
Slovakia, the quasi-home team during the Worlds preliminary-round group in Ostrava close to its border, went also undefeated in the February international break when hosting the Slovakia Cup in Banska Bystrica.
For most national teams the fourth international break was the last chance to test players ahead of the ultimate preparation for the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in spring.
As a part of the Euro Hockey Tour, the Czechs played two games against Russia. The home team won in both games, but each time in a different manner. While in the first game they blanked their rivals 3-0, they had to fight until the last minute to get a tight 4-3 win in the second game that was played in front of a sell-out crowd of 16,452 fans at O2 Arena in Prague, the main venue of the upcoming Worlds.
Michal Vondrka shone in both games as he scored three goals and got one assist. "I didn´t expect myself to be so effective to be honest, but I did enjoy both games very much. There was a fantastic atmosphere in each of them," the Czech forward said after the second game.
His performance could push him to the final roster for to the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship on home ice in a couple of weeks. "I don´t think that far ahead, the tournament is still very far, but every player wants to represent his country in front of the home crowd and I am not an exception."
For the Czechs the last two games were something special. Two wins against Russians were their first this season and it seems like the team led by coach Vladimir Ruzicka has found its way to winning in the right time.
“I want to win every time. I wasn´t embarrassed by the past losses. We have tried out young players, but now we are fully focused on the World Championship,” the Czech coach said.
Martin Rucinsky, who represented his country for the first time after nine years, made a great comeback on the national team.
“It was a strange feeling. It brings up various memories when you put on the national jersey after such a long time. It reminds of the times of glory and generations of guys who I used to play with on all the successful World Championships and Olympics. To represent my country has always been a great honour for me,” the 43-year-old veteran said after the first match.
Russian coach Oleg Znarok came to the Czech Republic with a young team with a couple of silver medal holders from the last World Juniors in Canada on its roster. Maxim Tretiak, the grandson of Russian goalie legend Vladislav Tretiak, was for the first time on the roster of the senior national team but he has yet to wait for his chance to show whether he can step into his grandfather’s footsteps on the international ice.
Despite the two losses, the Russians showed an attractive performance and in the second match they fought for the win until the very end. The average age of 23 years reflected their lack of experience in international play during both games, but the team of the defending world champion will likely look very different in May.
For Sweden the other Euro Hockey Tour double-header against Finland ended with mixed feelings. The first game in Vasteras had to be cancelled after 2:34 of the second period due to a hole in the ice. It ended with a 1-0 lead for Finland after a goal by Janne Pesonen.
In the second battle between the Nordic rivals in Stockholm, Sweden defeated Finland 3-2.
Finland took the lead at 18:11 on a goal by Kristian Nakyva, but before the end of the period Sweden got a 2-1 lead. Staffan Kronwall scored the equalizer and Nicklas Danielsson gave Sweden the lead 20 seconds later.
Martin Johansson has been the big surprise in the Swedish Hockey League and is second in SHL goal scoring (21). He also scored in his Tre Kronor debut. Johansson stole the puck from a Finnish defender and to put it into Atte Engren’s five-hole for the 3-1 lead early in the second period.
Finland got a late power play in the middle frame and managed to get its second goal 14 seconds before the end. Anssi Salmela's shot from the blueline bounced off two Swedes and left Oscar Alsenfelt without a chance but the game remained scoreless in the third period.
Slovakia wins first tournament of the season
The Slovak national team had a similar pre-event history like the Czechs. This season wasn´t very pleasant for the Slovaks after unsuccessful games at the Deutschland Cup and the Arosa Challenge, but they finally won their first tournament in the season.
The team led by a Czech coach Vladimir Vujtek showed a focused and powerful performance as they scored nine goals in two games. “In four years with the Slovak team, this tournament was our most successful pre-World Championship contest. We scored nine goals and our defence allowed only one. Finally we were able to work with our best players from Europe and it really shows on ice and in the results,” the Slovak coach said after the last game of Slovakia Cup.
In both games, the home team had faced young squads from Germany and Switzerland, which they defeated 4-1 and 5-0 respectively. The Germans brought two debutants to the tournament and the Swiss even five.
“We enjoy our triumph at home in the Slovakia Cup. We played really well and were better in both games. It is safe to say our opponents didn´t have their best players in their squads,” Slovak captain Dominik Granak said.
The Swiss started the tournament with a 4-1 victory against Germany and ended up in second place because their talent just wasn’t enough to beat the home team of the Slovakia Cup.
“We really wanted to win the Slovakia Cup. We had a young and fresh team that is hungry to win. Unfortunately we got beaten by the Slovaks in our last match. We probably paid for our lack of international experience. We had five debutants in this team and that might be one of the reasons why we struggled in that last game,” said Juraj Simek, the Swiss national team forward who was born in Slovakia but moved to Switzerland with his family when he was four years old.
Euro Ice Hockey Challenge
The nations ranked below participated in three tournaments as part of the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge.
Norway won its second tournament of the season. They needed just two wins to reach first place in the tournament held at various venues in Denmark. The first win came in the game against Belarus where the northern team came back from a 2-0 deficit with four straight goals in the second period and eventually beat their opponents 5-2. In the second game the Norwegians started more focused and scored three goals in the first period to eventually beat France 4-0. Despite the scoreless loss in their last game against their rivals from Denmark, 3-0, Norway finished the tournament in first place. The Olimb brothers Ken Andre and Mathis were the driving force with five scoring points each.
Host nation Denmark lost the opening game against France 4-2, and followed with an overtime victory over Belarus. Thanks to the win against Norway they moved up to second place in the final standings. Belarus finished third with four points from a 2-1 victory over France and the overtime loss to Denmark. France came last despite an opening day victory against the Danes.
The tournament in Vienna began with host Austria beating neighbouring rival Slovenia 4-2. In the following games of the tournament it turned out that this opening victory of the home team was crucial for the final standings. The Slovenes played their second game against the Slovak B squad and managed to get a close 3-2 win. Despite the huge 7-0 win over Italy they finished the tournament in second place. Slovan Bratislava forward Rok Ticar scored three goals and got three assists in the last two games to become the scoring leader of the tournament.
The Austrians won their second game against Italy to claim first place despite being beaten by the Slovak B team 3-2 on the last day. The Italians came in third position with their first and only victory in the game against the Slovaks, 2-1. The Slovaks came to Vienna with five bronze medallists from the last World Juniors in Canada, the MVP goalie Denis Godla included.
In the third tournament of the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge in Poland, the home team performed the best. In the first game against Ukraine the Poles took a 6-5 overtime win and didn´t allow a single goal in the following two matches against Hungary and Romania, winning them 2-0 and 4-0 respectively. It was a strong signal for the team that was recently promoted back to the second tier of the World Championship and will host the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Krakow. Hungary finished in second place ahead of Ukraine and Romania.
5 Feb.: Czech Rep. v Russia 3-0
6 Feb.: Sweden v Finland cancelled
7 Feb.: Czech Rep. v Russia 4-3
8 Feb.: Sweden v Finland 3-2
5 Feb.: Slovakia v Germany 4-1
6 Feb.: Germany v Switzerland 1-4
7 Feb.: Slovakia v Switzerland 5-0
Standings: 1. Slovakia 6, 2. Switzerland 3, 3. Germany 0
Euro Ice Hockey Challenge in Denmark
5 Feb.: Belarus v Norway 2-5
5 Feb.: France v Denmark 4-2
6 Feb.: Norway v France 4-0
6 Feb.: Denmark v Belarus 2-1 OT
7 Feb.: France v Belarus 1-2
7 Feb.: Denmark v Norway 3-0
Standings: 1. Norway 6, 2. Denmark 5, 3. Belarus 4, 4. France 3
Euro Ice Hockey Challenge in Austria
5 Feb.: Slovakia B v Italy 1-2
5 Feb.: Austria v Slovenia 4-2
6 Feb.: Slovenia v Slovakia B 3-2
6 Feb.: Austria v Italy 5-2
7 Feb.: Italy v Slovenia 0-7
7 Feb.: Austria v Slovakia B 2-3
Standings: 1. Austria 6, 2. Slovenia 6, 3. Italy 3, 4. Slovakia B 3
Euro Ice Hockey Challenge in Poland
6 Feb.: Romania v Hungary 0-8
6 Feb.: Poland v Ukraine 6-5 OT
7 Feb.: Poland v Hungary 2-0
7 Feb.: Romania v Ukraine 0-5
8 Feb.: Hungary v Ukraine 6-5
8 Feb.: Poland v Romania 4-0
Standings: 1. Poland 8, 2. Hungary 6, 3. Ukraine 4, 4. Romania 0
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