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VANCOUVER -- VANCOUVER -- The rule’s intent is to prevent a player from suffering a catastrophic injury. In Wednesday night’s quarterfinal round, it just might have cost the Czech national team a chance to win an Olympic medal.
Having to retrieve his helmet after it came unbuckled and slid to the backboards while he was making a diving sweep check to break up a rush, penalty-killing Czech defenseman Pavel Kubina had to abandon his position and his man in front of the net. That man, Niklas Hagman, used one of the rare moments of freedom from enemy presence all night long to set up shop in front and redirect a Janne Niskala point shot for the goal with 6:26 left in regulation that snapped a scoreless tie, lifting Finland to a 2-0 victory and a semifinal date with Team USA on Friday afternoon and ended the Czechs’ 2010 Olympic Games.
Had this been an NHL game, Kubina, though unable to begin a shift without a helmet, would have been permitted to finish the shift. Under IIHF rules, he had to either leave the ice immediately or retrieve the helmet and buckle it.
Kubina never got that chance. And now, the Czechs have no chance to repeat the feat they accomplished in 1998, when they won the first gold medal in an Olympic tournament including NHL players.
“That hurts, but that’s the rules,” said Czech star Jaromir Jagr, who almost certainly played his final Olympic game at age 38. “It’s just tough luck. Even the penalty was kind of tough luck. They didn’t have to call it, they came back after two minutes. It happened.”
Actually, NHL referees Dan O’Halloran and Brad Watson had no choice but to call a delay of game penalty 1:17 earlier when Czech winger Martin Erat, under a hard forecheck, flipped the puck from his own left corner over the glass and into the crowd.
But then, the Czechs had pretty easily killed off five Finnish power plays in the first period. And they were well on their way to killing off this one when Hagman came steaming down the left wing. Kubina dived and swept the puck cleanly off Hagman’s stick. But as the two became piled up, Kubina’s helmet came off and skittered behind the net.
Kubina, who has played in the NHL for 11 seasons, continued manning his position for a few seconds and then headed back to get his helmet. By the time he picked it up, the puck was in the back of the Czech net behind the otherwise-stellar Tomas Vokoun.
“I noticed that he lost his helmet, but then he still played a little bit,” said Hagman of the Calgary Flames. “I thought it should have been a penalty. Then, I don’t know if the referee told him he had to get his helmet or he felt his luck was running out with the time.
“Good for us that he lost his helmet. But that’s tough. That’s … I don’t know if I can get into trouble, but that’s a stupid rule. I know they want to keep it safe that nobody plays without a helmet. But everybody’s played so long that they’re smart enough.
“You lose a helmet, they should let the guys play. It’s stupid to go five-on-four. But those are the rules and you’ve got to play by them. And we maybe got a little lucky bounce there.”
The Czechs, in contrast, could not get the bounce they needed to get to the semifinals.
Both Jagr and Elias fanned on rolling pucks that squirted to the right of Finnish goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who was hopelessly out of the play and left a yawning net both times. And Elias hit the outside of the net off at the end of a pretty, three-on-two passing play with Jagr and Tomas Plekanec midway through the third.
“We had some chances,” Jagr said. “Patrik had that chance on the three-on-two. Maybe that was the best chance.”
Now, the Czechs have no more chance. Which particularly disturbed Jagr, who came on strong in the third but wasn’t the same commanding player he had been in the first few games of the tournament because of neck stiffness and soreness from a thunderous Alex Ovechkin body check in Sunday’s Group play finale.
“It bothers me that I couldn’t play 100 percent,” Jagr told NHL.com. “That’s what bothered me the most.”
Asked if he believed he had just played his final Olympic game, Jagr smiled and said: “Probably.
“It hurts. That’s tough. I thought we had a good schedule to go a little farther. But maybe we didn’t deserve it. Maybe we were just hoping.”
As for the Finns, they’re hoping that tenacious team defense and timely scoring can take them to a second straight Olympic final -- this time, with a winning result.
“I obviously hope we can do this all the way,” Hagman said. “Obviously, our goalies are playing all the way. Both of them (Niklas Backstrom was Kiprusoff’s backup), and even the third one (Antero Niittymaki) was the MVP of the last Olympics.
“Their goalie played well too. He made some great saves. But we knew that we were going to get the one that we need to win. And we just keep going.”
SCORING CZE 0 0 0 - 0 FIN 0 0 2 - 2
Penalties - Polak CZE (holding) 3:27, Kuba CZE (interference) 3:38, S. Koivu FIN (tripping) 4:16, Vasicek CZE (holding) 9:07, Elias CZE (goalie interference) 12:03, Krejci CZE (interference) 15:54.
Penalties - Jokinen FIN (delay of game) 15:41,
1. FIN, Hagman (Niskala) 13:34 (PPG)
2. FIN, Filppula (M. Koivu) 18:25 (ENG)
Penalties - Erat CZE (delay of game) 12:17.
SHOTS ON GOAL CZE 10 11 10 - 31 FIN 11 10 10 - 31
Goaltenders (goals-shots against) - CZE: Vokoun (W, 1-30); FIN: Kiprusoff (L, 0-31).
Power plays (goals-chances) - CZE: 0-2; FIN: 1-6.