Czechs march on
by Andy POTTS|23 MAY 2024
Czechia's goalie Lukas Dostal makes another stop during his team's World Championship QF against Team USA.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Andrea Cardin
Czech goalie Lukas Dostal produced a game-winning performance to frustrate the high-scoring Americans in Prague. An ecstatic home crowd celebrated a 1-0 verdict thanks to Pavel Zacha's second period goal.

The Anaheim netminder stopped 36 shots to deny a forward line that includes the tournament’s leading scorers so far, Matt Boldy (6+8 points) and Brady Tkachuk (7+6). At the other end, Czechia solved the American penalty kill for the first time in the tournament to advance.

Dostal, 23, is playing only his second World Championship, featuring in just one game in 2022 as the Czechs took bronze. But today he produced a display that will live long in Czech hockey folklore.

"It's unreal," he said. "Just look at our fans! They're absolutely crazy, absolutely buzzing. I'm so happy to play in front of them."

Team-mate Dominik Kubalik also talked up the goalie's performance. "He's incredible. There's really nothing more to it," Kubalik said. "He's a rock on our roster and we're so happy to have him here."

For U.S. captain Brady Tkachuk, defeat after such a strong group stage was a bitter blow. "It sucks," he admitted. "We came here to win gold so it's tough to react right now.

"I thought we played a great game but there are certain opportunities in games. Myself and a lot of the guys pride ourselves on standing up in those big moments."

The Czechs adjusted their starting lines compared with Tuesday’s hard-fought loss against Canada. Captain Roman Cervenka, briefly partnered by David Pastrnak and Zacha, returned to familiar company alongside Lukas Sedlak and Ondrej Kase. The Boston pair were joined by Ondrej Palat on an all-NHL line.

Amid huge Czech expectations, the Americans made the brighter start. Unfazed by another vibrant atmosphere in front of a packed house in Prague, the USA enjoyed the better of the early stages. Defensively solid and beginning to probe on offence, there were signs that the crowd was beginning to worry a little.

It only took a quick turnover to change that. Pastrnak got clear to fire a shot through Seth Jones’ legs. Richard Lindgren made the stop, but couldn’t stop the volume edging up once again.

And that was the story of the first period, with further breakaway chances for Martin Necas and the lively Pastrnak.

The balance of play was changing, and Czechia got the first meaningful chance in the middle frame. David Tomasek’s shot was blocked and Ondrej Beranek had repeated whacks at the loose puck as Lindgren held on.

There was some U.S. respite with its first power play of the game after Pastrnak was called for high-sticking. Today, though, the top-scoring team from the group stage could not add to its 37 goals.

At the other end, the first Czech power play saw the American penalty kill breached at last. Flawless through 13 kills in preliminary round play, team USA allowed a goal just 16 seconds after captain Brady Tkachuk sat for roughing. Zacha was the scorer, although he knew little about it: David Spacek’s centre point shot took a deflection off Brock Nelson’s stick and crashed into Zacha’s chest before dribbling over the line. As the crowd had Prague Arena rocking, Zacha’s adrenaline rush overrode any sting from the crunch of rubber on ribs.

"We got on the power play, we had a pretty easy set-up, a one-time shot and then we got a lucky bounce," said Kubalik of the deciding goal.

Captain Cervenka had the secondary assist on that play and almost added a second goal. Kase produced a spin on the boards to trigger an odd-man rush. He fed Cervenka for a shot from the circle, only for the puck to ding the crossbar.

But as the Czechs ran into penalties, Team USA began to create more chances. Lukas Dostal pulled off a big save late in the stanza to deny the ever-threatening Tkachuk shortly before the second intermission.

During that incident, Jan Rutta took a hooking minor and the U.S. power play piled up the pressure at the start of the third. Boldy and Tkachuk, scoring leaders in the tournament so far, had good looks but Dostal held on.

That set the tone for a final frame that often felt like a defence vs offence drill. The Americans knew that time was ticking down on their medal hopes. Much of the play was in front of Dostal’s net, but he was well protected by a hard-working home rearguard. Sitting deep, the Czechs eliminated any risk of a goal on the rush and challenged the opposition to produce an incisive combination or find some dominance on the forecheck. In return, although Czech chances were rare, an attacking face-off almost presented Palat with the 2-0 marker.

"They just had numbers in front of us," Tkachuk reflected. "They always had three or four guys ahead of you. They played a great game tonight."

Gradually, the pressure began to put cracks into the Czech D. Dostal found himself tested more seriously than before, with Michael Essiymont and Luke Kunin.

Into the last five minutes, Trevor Zegras thought he had forced a tying goal. He squeezed a shot into the net with Dostal prone after a collision with Joel Farrabee. However, the whistle had gone long before the puck cross the line and Farrabee’s claims he was pushed onto the paint made no impression on the officials.

"We just couldn't get a goal," said Cole Caufield. "We tried to compete as hard as we good and I thought we gave it to them in the third, but we got no goals."

The Americans played the closing moments with an empty net, Kubalik fired against the post from long range, and the hooter brought jubilant scenes as Dostal was swamped by his team-mates.

Now the goalie is trying to keep his feet on the ground ahead of a big weekend. "We've made it through," he said. "That's the first step but we have to keep it going."
United States vs Czechia (QF) - 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship