EDMONTON -- How big was the Czech Republic's stirring 5-2 decision over the U.S. National Junior Team in Group B preliminary-round play at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship?
"Even the president of the Czech Ice Hockey Association [Tomas Kral] called to say how happy he was," assistant coach Jiri Fischer said. "It's funny how hockey can bring a country together."
The gritty Czechs rallied behind 16,000-plus supporters and a never-say-die approach to earn perhaps their biggest win at the WJC since a gold-medal victory over Finland in 2001. The win clinched a medal-round berth for the Czechs, who entered this year's event having finished seventh at the WJC the previous three seasons.
As for the U.S., the loss all but assures the club will not advance to the medal round for the first time since 1999. The only chance the U.S. has at a possible medal-round entry is if winless Denmark can somehow manage to defeat heavily-favored Finland on Friday.
U.S. captain Jason Zucker summed up his team's feelings during post-game interviews.
"Disappointment," he said. "There's nothing I hate more than losing, and we lost two games in a row [to Finland and Czech Republic]. The thing is, I thought we were good enough to win. Against the Finns, we didn't get to the net and they deserved to win. The Czechs did play great, and their goalie was fantastic. There's not much more we could do."
Ah, the goalie. That would be the impenetrable Petr Mrazek, who turned back 52 shots, including a penalty shot during a 21-save effort in the third period. For the tourney, Mrazek is 2-1 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.
Offensively, Petr Holik scored twice and Tomas Filippi once to snap a 2-2 stalemate in the decisive third and send the team into a celebratory tizzy. Filippi also finished the game with a pair of goals.
"I think that was one of the best games that I played in my life," Mrazek said.
Holik scored the winning goal by collecting a rebound at the left post and backhanding an attempt by goalie Jack Campbell, giving the Czechs their first lead of the contest with 7:34 remaining. Filippi then extended the lead off a turnover in the U.S. end off a feed from captain Tomas Nosek with 2:41 left on the clock to ultimately seal the deal.
That goal sent the entire Czech team into celebration mode as Filippi skated up ice, pumping his fist before sliding onto his back near his player's bench. Mrazek would eventually topple, head-over-skates, on the pile of Czech players.
"Their goalie was good and lucky, and you need a little bit of both," U.S. coach Dean Blais said. "He was in the right place at the right time. We had guys in for rebounds. Hockey is an emotional game and when you have a good game like he did, he celebrated the way he thought. I had no problem with it."
Holik would close out the scoring into an empty net with 1:26 on the clock.
While the goals came in bunches for the Czechs in the final 10 minutes of the third, the game was all about the sensational play between the pipes of Mrazek.
"I was so focused before the game because it's America, right, and I'm playing American hockey [with the Ontario Hockey League's Ottawa 67's]," Mrazek said. "I wanted to win this game."
Holik's goal to give the Czechs a 3-2 lead came just 59 seconds after Mrazek stopped Josh Archibald on a penalty shot, marking the second penalty shot attempt that Mrazek has denied in the tournament. Archibald, who plays for Blais at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, went to his backhand on the attempt but, despite having Mrazek beat on the short side, missed the cage.
"Everyone has got to look in the mirror and figure out what they could have done better and learn from it, but we can't feel sorry for ourselves," U.S. center Bill Arnold said. "We have a game [against Canada] on Saturday and more games after that. I know it doesn't look good for us right now, but we just have to keep pushing on."
With 12:54 remaining in the third, U.S. forward J.T. Miller just missed giving his country the lead when his whistler from the right circle rang off the crossbar behind Mrazek.
"I really don't even know what to say; everyone in the locker room is still sitting there with their jerseys still on," Miller said about 30 minutes after the game. "We left it all on the ice and outshot them [54-29]. There's not much more we can do than hit the back of the net. I can't even blame the goaltending, defense or anything. Everyone played to their best … there's not much more we can do."
The U.S. is next scheduled to play Team Canada on New Year's Eve, but a Finland win in regulation Friday would make that game meaningless as far as the USA's hopes.
"I didn't think we lost momentum until that third goal, and obviously that was a huge momentum swayer," Blais said. "Then three turns into four.
"The team is very disappointed. They're sulking and going through a tough time. You have high expectations going into this tournament, and obviously they're squashed after [Friday's] loss."
The U.S. opened a 2-1 lead on its second power-play goal of the game when Arnold cleaned up a rebound to Mrazek's right at the 11:50 mark of the second period. The lead was short-lived as Tomas Hertl intercepted an ill-advised pass by T.J. Tynan from deep in the U.S. zone, skated toward the left hash and deposited a nifty backhand to Campbell's long side.
"Sometimes, there's no justice to the way the game is played," Blais said. "We had turnovers, but we also had quality chances that we didn't have against Finland. I felt we fixed what was broken, but obviously the puck-luck wasn't on our side."
Campbell, making his first start since the tournament opener against Denmark, made 24 saves.
"We haven't even discussed our starter against Canada yet," Blais said. "Jack is feeling really bad, obviously, because he's used to medals and it looks like he won't be leaving here with one this year."
The teams exchanged goals in the opening period as Tynan gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead with a power-play goal at the 5:14 mark before Filippi squared the contest at 12:05.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
It is really special. I had a lot of friends and family here tonight, and for my first [NHL] game in here it was great. I played here as an elementary-school player in the city championships and this was my first time back. It was a lot of fun..
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