Although it was only opening day of the 2019 IIHF World Championship, the Czech Republic and Team Sweden staged a battle worthy of the medal round.
Three lead-changes in the first 41 minutes of action set the full house in Bratislava into a bipartisan face-painted frenzy: lusty roars, irritated whistles, and full-throated love songs to their respective national teams.
Veteran broadcasters Dennis Beyak and “Sheriff” Shane Hnidy were a delight to the purists tuning in, Canadian guys who had paid serious international hockey dues in the most remote corners of Eastern Europe. They were back behind the mics, filling in all the critical storylines between frenetic bursts of action.
Two-time defending champion Sweden had a 17-game World Championship win streak on the line. Their goalie Henrik Lundqvist had earned his nickname “The King” for a reason, forcing lesser hockey nations to bow down before him in both the Olympics and the World Championships. Despite showing signs of age (37) and overuse (857 Games) playing for the NHL’s New York Rangers, he appeared revitalized in the dark blue sweater sporting Tre Kronor on his chest (three golden crowns).
He was sailing along with 15 saves and a 2-1 lead late in the second period, when the Czechs began their irrepressible push. The Slavs victory march was ignited not by the generals with NHL pedigrees, but by the rank and file still playing in Europe. Czech forward Jan Kovar (Plzen of the Czech league) circled in the attacking zone with the puck on his forehand, buying time as linemate Dominik Kubalik (Ambri-Piotta of the Swiss league) escaped his defender. Kovar ripped a pass across the slot and Kubalik buried it in the high twine, intensifying the puck party in Bratislava.
The Slovak hockey nation has adopted its Czech neighbors; the two nations are the equivalent of half-siblings, Czechoslovakia was united country for most of the 20th century before splitting up in 1993. On this night the Czechs were embraced like the long-lost family they are. They had tied the champs heading into the final intermission, where they girded for their next onslaught. It took place less than 30 seconds in the final frame.
Yes it was only the first game of the tournament the reigning champs and their King Henrik, but it may have had historical significance: the opening sequence of the third period resembled the toppling of statue. The Czechs hammered and hammered, and then Lundqvist was finally felled.
:28 seconds into the third Michal Frolik (Calgary Flames) was cutting across the top of the attacking circle when spied his captain Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia Flyers) at the top of the crease. Voracek collected the pass and spun 180 degrees to his backhand, testing Lundqvist who on his knees to take away the bottom of the net. His save resulted in a juicy rebound right in the wheelhouse of Czech sniper Dominik Simon (Pittsburgh Penguins). Simon blasted a point-blank snap shot from his forhand—stoned again by Lundqvist.
But Simon’s NHL teammate, now wearing the blue sweater of enemy Swede, upended him with hockey’s version of a cross body block. Simon tumbled by Lundqvist into the net, curling into the fetal position before fans approaching delirium. With the Swedish net resembling Grand Central Station at rush hour, Frolik returned to the scene of the crime, collecting the second inviting rebound of this pivotal sequence.
He sent the puck above all the sprawled bodies and all flailing limbs, and into spun high into Sweden’s net. A passionate protest proved fruitless, and the Czechs had regained the lead at 3-2. The impossibly stylish Henrik Lundqvist was now a disheveled mess, but he refused quit.
Five minutes later he faced another three-shot Czech barrage, this time successfully fending off a fatal tally. He was forced to get off his throne and dive onto his belly, scraping the disc off the goal line with his glove. It was sport at its desperate best.
This crossroads contest, the clash between the teetering champs and the adopted Czechs, was ultimately decided mano-a-mano. With five minutes remaining in a one-goal contest, the two clubs were both a man down, playing four-on-four hockey on the oversized Olympic ice surface. It created a frozen ocean of space for these Euro waterbugs, who used all of this gigantic canvas to paint the masterpiece moment. Czech defender Filip Hronek (Detroit Red Wings) broke up a Sweden rush at his end zone faceoff dot, and had the presence of mind to fire a 100’ pass onto the tape of the heroic Vrana, who received the puck in full flight.
Vrana’s speed had created the separation he needed to unleash an uncontested wrist shot from the top of the left circle facing Lundqvist. The King accepted his visitor coolly, perfectly balanced, awaiting the shot. A crucial factor in this showdown was that Vrana was on his off-wing, the puck on his left-shooting forehand which created a superior shooting angle. Vrana applied maximum flex onto his composite shaft, and squeezed off a deadly round, a dart pointed high to the stick side. The 37-year-old Lundqvist could not get his bulky blocker into the path of the puck, and it ripped off the high iron into the back of the net. You could hear the puck slam iron before deflecting into the goal, a bell tolling the end of a two-year dynasty.
With barely four minutes remaining in a contest that resembled a heavyweight title bout, the Czechs had their two-goal lead. The consequences proved fatal to the champs. Thirty seconds later Sweden pulled their King, and Czech marksmen found themselves facing an unguarded net. Kovar eventually converted for the 5-2 final score, and the Czech national anthem was played in Slovakia once again at game’s end.
One should be wary of reading too much into a game that opens the tournament, but Beyak and Hnidy both fell to the allure of such a riveting contest. They said that games like this normally require 10 days of curing for both teams to build to such a plateau of excellence. But the schedule makers got lucky, as did the fans and the global TV audience.
It was just day one of hockey drama from one of two Round-Robin venues, a Group B thriller that appeared to be the dethroning of a champion. Hyperbole aside, these facts are undisputable: 17-game win streak was halted in its tracks, and the impenetrable King of international hockey had a kink in his armor exposed for in front of the entire hockey world.
It was hockey’s version of Masterpiece Theater, merely the opening act to the IIHF’s annual two-week sports drama.