As was the case a year ago at the World Junior Championship in Alberta, the Czech Republic's Under-20 national team once again advanced from the group stage and, this time alongside Switzerland, created an upset for another big hockey country.
Last year, it was the United States who suffered a loss to the Czechs; this year, Finland had to fight to avoid relegation because of a loss to the Czechs. In addition to Switzerland and Finland, the Czechs also faced Latvia and Sweden in Group A, which meant that expectations were high for a return to the playoff round, expectations that the Czechs were able to meet.
There were no suprises in the Czech Republic's first game of the tournament as Tre Kronor beat the Czechs, 4-1. In what looked pretty much like a one-sided game, the Czechs did manage to generate some chances and scored a late third-period goal which acted as a morale booster for the team heading into their game against Finland. The Swedes showed all their cards in their first game of the WJC, with the quickness of their attack and defensive consistency causing the most trouble for the Czechs.
Due to the presence of several solid NHL prospects on their roster, Finland was considered one of the front-runners for the gold medal. The Czechs nonetheless came out on the ice as a determined team that knew they were playing their most important game of the group stage. The Finns appeared to have been somewhat surprised with the offensively-minded game of their opponent and a solid performance by nominal backup goaltender, Patrik Bartošák, allowing the Czechs to grab a two-goal lead they would never look back from. Finland failed to find their way back into this game, with the loss forcing them to eventually play in the relegation group.
Latvia was supposed to be the easiest opponent for all the teams in that group, and this was mostly the case for the Czechs. Nevertheless, the Czechs had a number of problems with the brave Latvian team that managed to come back twice from a one-goal deficit, with the score still tied as late as six minutes before the final buzzer. Just as Czech Television color commentator and former hockey player Josef Zajíc pointed out, the Czechs have always had troubles with weaker opponents, not only in youth categories, but also the top national team.
The Czech Republic faced an extremely fierce opponent in Switzerland to end the group stage. The Swiss team hadn't lost all three points in any one game before this one after losing to both the Finns and Swedes in overtime. The Czechs found a way to overcome the strength of Switzerland in the second period, however, building up a two-goal lead. But the resilient Swiss squad climbed all the way back and forced yet another overtime, one that would be decided by San Jose Sharks prospect, Tomáš Hertl. The overtime win meant the Czechs would advance to the quarter-finals if Sweden beat Finland.
That Swedish victory happened later that day and, while Finland was mourning, the Czechs and Switzerland were celebrating going on to the quarter-finals. That wasn't a pleasing experience for either of the two countries, however, as the Swiss suffered a bitter shootout loss to Russia and the Czechs were completely shut down by the United States. The 7-0 thumping must have been a sweet payback for the Americans after last year's loss to the Czech Republic that sent the USA to the relegation round.
The Czechs finished the tournament claiming fifth place in the standings with their 4-3 win in the fifth place game against Switzerland, becoming the only team that managed to beat Switzerland in regulation. Tomáš Hyka (LAK) of the Gatineau Olympiques recorded a goal and two helpers (including one on the game-winning goal by Hertl) in the game meant to decide the final standings.
Top Forward – Tomáš Hertl
The San Jose Sharks draftee and a member of the Czech Euro Hockey Tour national team was expected to lead the team through the championship, and he did in fact manage to pick up his game and be a dominant factor whenever on the ice. Naturally, he was most visible against Latvia, where he did just about everything he wanted to. All Latvians but the goaltender Ivars Punnenovs failed to find a way to stop him. The stats, however, leave one asking where is the part of his progress that should show on the scoresheet. Just like a year ago, he collected five points, only this time it was two goals and three assists instead of the three goals and two assists he collected at the 2012 WJC. The reason for his lack of offensive advancement might be his style of play as Hertl likes to carry the puck, something he did extensively at this tournament rather than making better use of his linemates.
Top Defenseman – David Musil
What might seem to be an easy selection was actually the most difficult. David Musil was drafted in the second round, 31st overall, at the 2011 draft by Edmonton. The Oilers see him as a top-end defensive prospect with tremendous physical ability. Musil is the big, tough rearguard they will one day need, but in Ufa he looked a little more like a fish out of water. His start to the tournament wasn't all that impressive as he racked up six penalty minutes in the first eight minutes of the opening game with Sweden. After that, he kept on making mistakes even though still appearing to be the most solid of Czech defensemen. His problem was the big ice that didn't only hurt him but also Dallas Stars offensive prospect, Radek Faksa.
Team MVP – Dmitri Jaškin
After naming Hertl the top forward on the team, it might look a little odd to select another forward as the team's most valuable player. The truth is that Hertl, as mentioned, failed to produce the way he was supposed to, while Dmitri Jaškin was a surprising name atop the Czech scoring leaders. With six points, this technical, Russian-born winger contributed when the team needed it the most. In the deciding game against Switzerland late in the group stage, Jaškin had three helpers, even assisting on Hertl's game-winning goal. If Jaškin keeps on progressing the way he is with the QMJHL's Moncton Wildcats, the St. Louis Blues will be glad they chose him in the second round of the 2011 NHL Draft.
Unsung player – Patrik Bartošák
Prior to this WJC when it wasn't really obvious who was going to be the number-one goalie for the Czech team, Matěj Machovský might have appeared to be the preferred starter. And he was, being given the opening start against Sweden. But Bartošák was the more successful netminder at this tournament, stopping a barrage of shots during the game against the Finns, who battled ferociously while trying to overcome a two-goal deficit. After that game, Bartošák became the go-to guy in net for the Czechs, which was crucial for the team's success.
2013 prospect to watch – Jan Štencel
According to the scouts, there are better upcoming draft prospects coming out of the Czech Republic, but the fact is that Jan Štencel was the most highly-regarded Czech player eligible for this year's NHL Draft who was present at this WJC. At the beginning, he was the obvious addition to Musil in the first defensive pairing. But the coach split them up after the game with Sweden, moving Štencel all the way to the seventh defensive spot. That didn't take its toll on the youngster's confidence, however, as he kept on performing well and even assisted on a goal, sending the puck cross-ice in the offensive zone and finding an open player as if he was a natural playmaker.
Both this and the previous U-20 World Junior Championship were relatively successful for the Czech Republic, as they found their way into the top-five of the WJC in both years. That position would seem to indicate that Czech youth hockey isn't quite as weak as many thought, and that the future looks reasonably bright for prospects coming out of this proud hockey country. It's players like Hertl, Jaškin, and Štencel who give the Czechs hope for the future, along with 2014 draft prospect Jakub Vrána, who played at this tournament and performed reasonably well considering his youth.