SOCHI, RU -- The Czech Republic knew it needed to make something happen Friday in order to get its campaign at the 2014 Sochi Olympics back on track.
Another slow start, like the one that led to a 4-2 loss to Sweden in the opening game of Group C play on Wednesday, could have been disastrous, especially against Latvia, a country spoiling to register its first significant Olympic victory.
Fortunately, the Czechs still have Jaromir Jagr on their team. Jagr set the tone for the afternoon by scoring a huge goal in the last minute of the first period spark a 4-2 victory against the Latvians.
"We didn't play very well in the first half of the game against Sweden, but we played better in the second half of this game, so we have to wait for tomorrow [against Switzerland] to see what kind of team we really are," Jagr said.
If the Czechs continue to get offensive performances from Jagr like the ones they have received in the first two games of this tournament, they will be a dangerous out.
Jagr turned a taut first period in the favor of the Czechs with a sublime effort. In the slot, he took a pass from Marek Zidlicky, his teammate with the New Jersey Devils, and kicked the pass from his skate to his stick. He held the puck momentarily, then snapped his wrists and picked the far corner cleanly to give his team a 2-1 lead.
"That was unstoppable," said Czech forward Jakub Voracek, who scored what proved to be the game-winning goal in the second period. "The way he hits it, low-blocker … it's very hard for goalies to stop it. He knows how to score goals."
Jagr, who turns 42 on Saturday, has a goal in each of his first two games in this tournament.
His contribution Friday night left Latvian coach Ted Nolan in awe.
"He's like a fine wine, he just keeps getting better with age," said Nolan, who coaches the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL. "As I told someone before, he is almost like a ballerina on ice; he's so smooth and slick. He's a world-class player. Today, he proved how good he is again."
The Czechs got off on the right foot when Martin Erat scored a surprising goal from the high circles. Erat beat Latvian goalie Edgars Masalskis through the five-hole despite the lack of traffic or other mitigating circumstances. Masalskis, so dominating in a 1-0 loss to Switzerland on Wednesday, had made several five-bell saves to that point in the game.
"We said we have to be more active and dictate the tempo of the game," Czech forward Ales Hemsky said. "Like in the first game, they were dictating the tempo in the first period and we didn't have too much. That was the difference today."
But it was still interesting as the Latvians answered both the Erat goal and the Jagr goal in short order.
Jakub Sprukts scored Latvia's first goal of the tournament with a one-timer past Ondrej Pavelec that went in and out so fast that almost no one, including the referees, realized it had hit a camera inside the net. Even Spurkts thought Pavelec had made the save. Play continued for almost 45 seconds before the next whistle. At that point, the play was reviewed and the goal awarded.
Pavelec, the Winnipeg Jets' starting goaltender, did not dress for the loss to Sweden. Jakub Kovar started Wednesday and allowed three goals on 10 shots before being lifted. Alexander Salak finished that game and backed up Pavelec on Friday afternoon. Pavelec finished with 18 saves, though he was tested on several occasions.
"It was a good start for me," Pavelec said. "It was a tough game. It's never an easy game against those guys. They play the way we expected and they were waiting for an opportunity to score goals. It wasn't easy, but we scored the goals in the right times."
Herberts Vasiljevis tied the game early in the second period after a turnover, but the deadlock lasted only 4:21, thanks to a piece of brilliance by Voracek, who rose from a check in time to raise his stick, with one hand, to a position from which he was able to redirect a wrist shot from the point by Zbynek Michalek into the net for what proved to be the winning goal.
"Sometimes you need to get lucky," said Voracek, who plays for the Philadelphia Flyers. "I put my stick down and I was just lucky enough that it hit me. I was trying to tip that but you never know how lucky you get. I got lucky on that goal and it was a huge goal for us."
Zidlicky gave the Czechs some breathing room at 17:02, storming out of the corner to deposit a loose puck into the net. On the play, Martin Hanzal was checked into the Latvian goalie and pulled Masalskis off the post to provide the opening exploited by Zidlicky. The Latvians protested, claiming goalie interference, But the play stood even after a video review.
Masalskis finished with 35 saves.
The Czechs finish pool play with a game against Switzerland on Saturday while the Latvians play Sweden.
Author: Shawn P. Roarke - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor
CALGARYFLAMES.COM NOTE: Ladislav Smid put in 19:31 of ice time against Latvia. He skated alongside Marek Zidlicky in the Czech's top defensive pairing.