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IIHF – Czechs strike gold on home ice

IIHF – Czechs strike gold on home ice

Dreams do come true. David Pastrnak scored the third-period winner at 9:13 as the Czechs blanked Switzerland 2-0 in the 2024 gold medal game in Prague. Amid a wild atmosphere, Czechia becomes just the fifth nation ever to win the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship on home ice.

Set up by Tomas Kundratek after an offensive-zone draw, the Boston Bruins superstar hammered home a one-timer from the left faceoff circle, his favourite spot. It was Pastrnak’s first goal of these Worlds, breaking a four-game drought, and couldn’t have come at a better time.

Of his sliding celebration, Pastrnak said: “I didn’t think there was a goal that could get me down on my knees sliding. But that’s the emotion I felt and it was crazy. I’d told myself I will never do that celebration and something just exploded. It was all that emotion, the fans, the whole country.”

David Kampf added an empty-netter in the final minute. Goalie Lukas Dostal recorded his tournament-best third shutout with 31 saves.

The tension was off the charts at the O2 Arena, where a capacity crowd of 17,413 topped off a tournament-attendance record of 797,727. Czech fans will never forget Sunday night, wherever they were. This was among the tightest finals in Worlds history.

It’s the first Czech gold medal since 2010 (Cologne) and 13th of all time. The last Czech medal was bronze in 2022 (Tampere).

Sweden (2013) and Finland (2022) earned home-ice gold in the 21st century. In the 20th century, Czechoslovakia (1947, 1972, 1985) and the Soviet Union (1973, 1979, 1986) pulled it off. So the 2024 Czechs are in exclusive company.

“It’s hard to explain,” said Czechia’s Matej Stransky. “You’re just so happy about everything. The guys we had here, we’re like brothers, and that makes you even happier. Because you dream of this. Obviously, it’s the dream of every hockey player. I didn’t know it was going to be possible when I was younger, but now I’m here and it happened.”

This was a duel between the top two Worlds goalies statistically in Dostal and Switzerland’s Leonardo Genoni. Prior to the final, Genoni, 36, amassed a 1.45 GAA and 93.4 save percentage with one shutout, while Dostal, 23, had a 1.80 GAA and 92.8 save percentage.

Blueliner Radko Gudas extolled Dostal, his Anaheim Ducks teammate: “I don’t know if I need to talk about this. His record speaks for itself. But he’s been terrific. He stepped into the NHL last year and he didn’t look back. He’s a man in the right place. For the age he’s at, he’s so calm. He gives us confidence to be able to play and make those plays in front of him. It’s an unbelievable feeling to have him as a teammate in Anaheim, and it’s awesome to be together as world champions.”

The Swiss twice settled for the silver medal in the last decade, losing to Sweden in both the 2013 and 2018 finals. This year, coach Patrick Fischer iced a cohort of elite NHLers, including captain Roman Josi, Kevin Fiala, and Nico Hischier, and they played up to their potential. This silver is still a major achievement for them, but feels more disappointing than before.

Switzerland’s Andres Ambuhl, 40, became the oldest player ever to win a silver medal at the Worlds. The HC Davos captain played his 141st career World Championship game in his 19th Worlds, both all-time records. But his third second-place finish was a tough pill to swallow.

“Silver is silver and gold is gold, and we didn’t get gold, so it always hurts,” said Ambuhl.

In an O2 Arena shaking with thunderous pro-Czech chants, horns, and drums, the teams set a furious pace in the penalty-free first period. Nearing the six-minute mark, forward Ondrej Beranek was so fired up that he accidentally leaped into the Swiss bench while trying to keep a puck in the attacking zone.

Midway through the first, the top all-NHL Czech line generated the first great chance off the rush. Pastrnak fed Boston teammate Pavel Zacha and he found Ondrej Palat on the doorstep, forcing Genoni to come across and foil the New Jersey veteran.

The Czechs continued to press, but Genoni’s vigilance was undeniable. Meanwhile, on a savvy Swiss counterattack, Christoph Bertschy sizzled a shot off Dostal’s right post.

Just before the halfway point, Swiss rearguard Michael Fora went off for holding Palat behind Genoni’s net. Yet the Swiss goalie frustrated both Pastrnak and Martin Necas on power-play one-timers. Switzerland’s penalty kill has been surprisingly weak, ranking 15th out of 16 teams prior to the final, but delivered here.

“We had them where we wanted them at 0-0 after 40 minutes,” said Switzerland’s Gaetan Haas.

Caution dominated the third, neither side wanting to make that fatal mistake. After a big Palat hit on Andrea Glauser cracked the glass, the Czech fans took advantage of the delay for repairs to hop up and down. The physicality continued as Gudas sent Ambuhl head-over-heels by the benches with a Niklas Kronwall-style hit.

After Pastnark’s go-ahead goal, the Swiss pushed for the equalizer. Bertschy nearly fooled Dostal with a tip in front of the net. Fischer pulled Genoni for a sixth attacker with just over two minutes left in regulation. However, Kampf won a foot race to tuck in the empty-netter with 19 seconds left.

“I don’t think I really realized yet what what happened,” said Gudas. “It’s a dream come true for every kid. especially playing in front of the home crowd and having the fans behind you cheering for the whole game. I’m just happy that our team pulled together like they did today and yesterday [versus Sweden] and Thursday [in a 3-1 quarter-final win over Germany].”

The Czechs previously had a golden generation that kicked off with their stunning gold medal at the first “NHL Olympics” in Nagano in 1998, spearheaded by legends like Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr. That paved the way for a slew of World Championship triumphs including1999-2001, 2005, 2010. Now a long rebuilding process is finally bearing golde

Czech captain Roman Cervenka, who led his team with 11 points, is the only remaining player from the 2010 gold-medal team. 

In the group stage, Switzerland beat Czechia 2-1 on Philipp Kurashev’s shootout goal. The gold medal game was certainly unlike the 7-3 Czech semi-final romp over Sweden.

Among the noteworthy roster moves, Kurashev returned to the Swiss lineup, taking Sven Jung’s place after being a healthy scratch for three straight games. Czech defenceman Jan Rutta was suspended due to an elbow on Sweden’s Isac Lundestrom in the semi-final.

Switzerland built an earlier medal-winning tradition from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. It included two Olympic bronze medals (1928, 1948), a World Championship silver medal (1935), and six World Championship bronze medals (1930, 1937, 1939, 1950, 1951, 1953). But gold remains elusive.

Could this be the start of a Czech dynasty? Stay tuned. The Czechs will aim to defend their title at the 2025 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship co-hosted by Sweden and Denmark (Stockholm and Herning, 9 to 25 May).