VANCOUVER – If the only mandate in the elimination phase of any tournament simply is to survive and advance, then the Czech Republic has nothing to worry about.
But by any other measure and from any other perspective, it is difficult to view what the Czechs did Tuesday night as taking a significant step toward winning an Olympic medal.
Against what in effect is the Dynamo Riga club team from the KHL, Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias and Co. were fortunate to escape with a 3-2 victory over Latvia in a qualifying-round game at the University of British Columbia's Thunderbird Arena.
The victory, however unimpressive, earned the Czechs a berth in Wednesday night's quarterfinals against Finland – though they might have to play it without Jagr, who left the game with a sore neck early in the second period.
David Krejci made it possible for the Czechs' Olympic hopes to live another day by squeezing a 30-foot wrist shot through the pads of otherwise-heroic Latvian goaltender Edgars Masalskis 5:10 into the 10-minute, 4-on-4 overtime period. That was the 50th shot of the game that the Czechs launched at Masalskis – and one of the least threatening until the moment it went in.
"I don't think I've scored a bigger goal," said Krejci of the Boston Bruins. "This is something special. And it's pretty cool. But with our team performance today, I wasn't very happy.
"I want to forget about it. I'm going to think about my goal after the tournament is over. But right now is not the right time to celebrate that goal."
The immediate on-ice euphoria that the Czechs displayed when Krejci scored quickly dissipated amid the reality that they had melted down and nearly been upset by a team with all of two NHLers. A team almost entirely comprised of players from one city – 20 of Latvia's 23 players were born in Riga.
Having failed to build on an early 2-0 lead and then playing to kill the clock in the third period, the Czechs were stunned by a hard-work goal by Martins Cipulis with 7:58 left and the tying score off a backboards rebound by Mikelis Redlihs with 3:41 remaining in regulation.
"I'm really happy that we finally played the game that we were looking for, that our coach and the fans were waiting for from us," said Latvian captain Karlis Skrastins of the Dallas Stars. "We came back against one of the best teams in the world, the Czech national team, from 2-0. So I'm proud about my team."
The Czechs weren't even the best team on the ice over the second half of this game. And losing Jagr left a big hole.
Suffering second-day after-effects from the thunderous body check he absorbed from Alex Ovehckin in Sunday night's pool-play finale, Jagr entered this game with a sore neck. And after flubbing a shot at a half-open net early in the second period, he headed to the dressing room never to return.
"We hope he'll be available to play tomorrow," Czech head coach Vladimir Ruzicka said. "We believe he will be ready. And obviously, were hoping he can play the whole game."
The rest of the Czech team is hoping it can play a very different game against a far more formidable opponent.
"I'm just relieved, obviously, to have a chance to compete tomorrow," said Patrik Elias, the Czech captain. "It was the toughest win I've ever had, obviously. They made it hard on us. We couldn't score that third or fourth goal to give us breathing room and you saw what happened."
In fact, had Czech goaltender Tomas Vokoun not made a couple of highlight-reel stops himself – including a toe save on Cipulis during a Latvian 5-on-3 that had to be confirmed by video replay – the Latvians might be playing the Finns in the quarterfinals.
"Obviously, we got a win that was important," Krejci said. "But the way we played today we can't play tomorrow. So I would prefer to forget about this game and move forward. And tomorrow is going to be the biggest game of my career.
"So I'll get ready tonight and tomorrow and be ready to show lots of heart tomorrow. I'm sure everybody else will do that, too."