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Elias, Czechs fend off Latvia

by Staff Writer / New Jersey Devils
VANCOUVER - First, the Czech Republic dangled and danced its way to a 4-0 lead. Then, obviously a bit too pleased with its own stylistic prowess and a bit dismissive of the resolve of their opponents, the Czechs danced and dangled with no apparent purpose, allowing crowd-favorite Latvia to climb back into the game.

But in the end, with the chance to win Group B in its sights and enough important players remaining focused, the Czechs hung on to defeat Latvia 5-2 on Friday afternoon at Canada Hockey Place.

The victory, built on the second straight strong games played by venerable forward Jaromir Jagr and stalwart goaltender Tomas Vokoun, sent the Czechs into Sunday's showdown with Russia knowing that anything short of a regulation loss will give it the Group B title and an automatic berth into Wednesday's quarterfinals.

While the Czechs' top line of Patrik Elias, Tomas Plekanec and Martin Havlat has yet to really explode in two Olympic games, Jagr has gotten better and better with each period. The line of underrated NHLers Tomas Fleischmann, Martin Erat and David Krejci also provided shift after shift of high energy and threatening scoring chances.

It was that line, in fact, that strung together three pretty passes that ended with Krejci's first goal of this tournament, 2:30 into the game. That catalyzed a three-goals-in-2:37 blitz that enabled the Czechs to open up a quick 3-0 lead.

Plekanec scored his second goal of the Olympics by redirecting a Marek Zidlicky shot past Latvian goaltender Edgars Masalskis, who was swimming all over his crease in the early going. Then Jagr scored his second in two games by going back to a since-discarded move that was a staple of his brilliant, franchise-record-setting first season as a New York Ranger (2005-06): He leaned into a slap shot from the left half-boards on a power play and simply powered it past Masalskis.

However, having burst so quickly and easily into the lead, the Czechs took their foot off the gas pedal - or, to be more accurate, they stopped driving straight down the road and began weaving all over the place.

Beautiful passing plays that went nowhere were the result. And since they were allowed to hang around, the Latvians - with much of the crowd chanting "Lat-Vi-A!" - decided to climb back into it.

A goal by Czech defenseman Tomas Kaberle made it 4-0 early in the second period before the comeback began. But then the Latvians got goals from Kristaps Sotnieks and Girts Ankipans within the final 4:30 of the second to cut it to 4-2.

As they had in their Olympic opener vs. Slovakia, the Czechs were able to make a two-goal lead stand up throughout an entire third period before Patrik Elias hit the empty net with 17.4 seconds left. They therefore get a day off atop Group B before taking on the Russians.

-- John Dellapina
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