Czechs edge USA to advance to Olympic hockey semi-finals

Twenty years since Nagano, the Czech hockey team has again edged the United States in the men’s quarterfinal at the Winter Olympics. At these games, it was a close affair, with the match coming down to a penalty shootout.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK The Czech Republic has arguably surpassed expectations at the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang with a surprise win the women’s Super-G and other disciplines. But for many Czechs, the heart of the winter games is hockey, and it was with excitement and also some nervousness that fans awaited the quarterfinal matchup between the Czech Republic and the US.

In the end, it was the Czech squad that prevailed. In the game, the US team drew first blood on a powerplay goal by Ryan Donato but the Czechs fought back in the first period and got on the scoreboard on a slapshot from Jan Kolář.

The Czechs then took the lead in the second period on a shot by defenseman Tomáš Kundrátek. The second period was easily the Czech team’s best: they continued to outshoot their opponents and the period saw a 10-minute stretch when the United States were denied a single shot on Pavel Francouz’s net. The goalie, who wears the number 33, would be the difference in the game, although the US tied it in the third.

Pavel Francouz, Jordan Greenway, photo: CTKPavel Francouz, Jordan Greenway, photo: CTK The hockey gods, as Czech announcers often like to say, were with the Czech team at two crucial moments: in the dying minutes of the third, for example, the US team came centimetres away from getting the go-ahead goal. With roughly two minutes to go, O’Neill rang a shot off the post.

Then in the 10-minute overtime period, there was no sudden death goal, meaning the match went to a penalty shootout.

But it was close.

Near the end of the overtime period, a shot by Bobby Sanguinetti slipped behind Francouz with some 40 seconds left, but the puck dropped flat in the crease giving the goalie time to find and then smother it. Any momentum would have seen it go in.

In an interview afterwards, the goalie admitted this was arguably the tensest moment of the game for him.

It was in the penalty shootout that goalie Pavel Francouz shined the most. At the Nagano Olympics 20 years ago, many will remember the semi-final against Canada where the Czechs scored only once in the shootout and star goaltender Dominik Hašek allowed zero goals for the win.

Petr Koukal scores a goal past Ryan Zapolski, photo: CTKPetr Koukal scores a goal past Ryan Zapolski, photo: CTK That scenario was repeated here: US goalie Ryan Zapolski stopped four shots and allowed only one goal by Petr Koukal who slipped the puck between the pads. But Francouz blanked all five shooters, clinching the win. The US has now failed to medal in eight of the 10 Olympic men’s hockey tournaments since the famous "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.

The Czechs are in the semi-final for the first time since Turin in 2006. But they will have a tough test ahead: they face the Olympic Athletes from Russia team, among the heavy favourites to win the entire tournament.

The Russians in their quarterfinal declassed Norway by a score of 6:1.