Balastik scores winner as Czechs beat Norway
By: John Sanful
In their first Qualifying Round game at the IIHF World Championships since 2000, Norway battled hard to keep the game close but ran into an effective, deeper Czech side, losing 3-1 in the second game of the day at Riga Arena.
Norway, fresh off a big win against Denmark in the last game of the Preliminary Round, was in command for the first twenty minutes of the contest, thanks to a power play goal by Morten Ask.
The Czechs, however, would not go quietly.
Second period goals by Jan Hlavac and Jaroslav Balastik put the Czechs in front and gave them a lead they would not surrender.
In the opening period, the Czech Republic got the first power play of the game when Mads Hansen hooked down Jaroslav Hlinka. Norway was able to effectively kill it off and soon thereafter found some their confidence.
Eleven minutes into the contest, Hlinka was whistled off for holding the stick, allowing the Norwegian power play to finally see some action. Cpming in ranked sixth in the tournament, the Norwegian power play would make the best of the man advantage when Ask tipped a wrist shot by Hansen past Milan Hnilicka at 12:21 of the frame.
Norway kept the Czechs off the board as Mathias Gundersen turned away nine shots in the period. Offensively, they managed only four shots in the period, but they were able to convert on one thanks to Ask.
"We started slow and did not skate well," said Czech Head Coach Alois Hadamczik. "We lost a lot of pucks in the neutral zone in that period."
Recent roster addition Zbynek Irgl skated on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Jan Bulis; the line was quite effective in the second, generating scoring opportunities when play resumed. The best came when Bulis was off to the side of the net and Gunderson was down. Bulis had a wide-open net but hit the outside of the post. In disbelief, he turned his head towards the sky after missing a golden opportunity.
But the Czechs would solve Gundersen when, at 7:21 of the second period, Martin Richter sent a pass across the far point onto the stick of Martin Skoula, whose wrist shot was redirected on goal by Jan Hlavac. Gundersen had little chance of stopping it, and it was 1-1.
Both teams had their opportunities to score but were unable to convert. Hlinka got a pass that sent him in on a break, but lost his handle on the puck as he approached the Norwegian net.
Norway's Ask and Lars Erik Spets got a 2-on-1 break but that was broken up in front of Hlinka. It was the second-best chance of the game for the Norwegians--the other one was when they scored.
"We had some good scoring chances in the second," said Norwegian Head Coach Roy Johnsen. "The team also had to play hard on defense. It was a game that required hard work. We wanted at least one point, but I was pleased with the way the team worked."
Patrick Thoresen was easily one of Norway's best players on the afternoon. Thoresen set up chances and generated some of his own as well. He was particularly active in the second period. On one shift, Thoresen made a little inside-outside move on Martin Richter leading to a shot that was knocked away by Hnilicka. Thoresen was instrumental in pacing the attack even though Norway was outshot by nearly a 3-to-1 margin in the period.
Jaroslav Balastik, who was stopped earlier in the period, gave the Czechs the lead when he sent a ripping wrist shot over Gundersen's shoulder and high into the net. The goal, scored at 18:31 of the second, gave the Czechs a 2-1 advantage heading into the third, and it proved to be the difference. The Czechs outshot Norway 20-7 in the period.
Petr Tenkrat added a late goal in the third to cement the win. Both teams were disciplined in their approach as only five minors were called on each side. Norway's effort was bolstered by Gundersen who faced 42 shots in the game.
"It is important to point out that their goalie played excellent," said Hadamczik, lavishing praise on Gundersen. "We had many scoring chances but he came up big for his team."
Norway next takes on Finland and the Czech Republic will face Canada, both Sunday tilts at Riga Arena.