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Day 5: Upset upstages

December 30, 2011

The United States was defeated by a mark of 5-2 by the Czech Republic. Or shall I say, the Czech Republic took charge in the third period and resoundingly won a hockey game today against co-favorite for gold in this year’s WJC. Looks like that’s no longer the case, or even remotely possible. The Czechs meanwhile have secured a semifinal berth.

As far as the quality of games go, this one was a delight: it was actually tight. The game hadn’t been blown out to one team or the other in the first period. It was, well, in a word, competitive. Yet at the same time, the US had no rhythm. They didn’t play as a team, and they were hardly aggressive. Save for a rash of mind-bendingly close chances in the third period, they failed to play with the energy and force required. They chased the Czechs around the ice. The Czech Republic was able to look nearly casual–passing the puck, pulling fancy moves, evading a rapidly tiring American squad. It’s not clear whether one team was truly marvelous, the other miserable. Where was the power-play for Team USA? Where did their forecheck escape to? Or, more importantly, how soon will Mrazek lead the Red Wings of the future?

What was clear was just how important the victory was to the Czech Republic. Sure, it was ephemeral, this win, and everyone there knew as much. Such is the case with this tournament in general: it’s like fireworks or an ice cream sundae. Once it’s done, it’s done. It’s meant to be disposable. But the pure joy 50-shot stopper Mrazek exhibited as he skated down the ice to congratulate Zlin-native Petr Holik on his go-ahead goal in the third was infectious. Mrazek has put on a clinic these last few days…and a show, too. His fist pumps, dances and jeers to the crowd (depending on the game) have given his team a certain confidence, a flair. It’s also underscored what a mockery the tournament can be when one team after the next is hauled before the Canadians for a brutal beat-down. All that said, Mrazek and the team have a youthful exuberance, spunk, recklessness–and these are the qualities that junior hockey should be about. The tight, corporate, clean and focused character of Team Canada is a study in contrasts.

Tomorrow, the US plays Canada in what will be a game for pride, if ever there was one. The Czech Republic takes on Finland.

And yes, I skipped day four. More Czech media coverage to come.

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