VANCOUVER -- If the only mandate in the elimination phase of any tournament truly is simply 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 overtime victory over Latvia in a qualifying-round game at the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Arena. David Krejci scored the winning goal 5:10 into overtime.
The victory, however unimpressive, earned the Czechs a berth in Wednesday’s quarterfinals against Finland.
Whether Jagr will play is anybody’s guess.
The five-time NHL scoring champion left the game with an apparent neck injury early in the second period and did not return.
Jagr, of course, had been rocked by a thunderous bodycheck from Alex Ovechkin during the second period of Sunday night’s pool play finale against Russia. However, he finished that game and insisted afterward that he was not physically injured by the hit, which led to a pivotal Evgeni Malkin goal.
Without Jagr, the Czechs were unable to add to the 2-0 lead they had built in the game’s first 11:06 on goals by Tomas Rolinek and Tomas Fleischmann
. Unable to beat the scrambling Edgars Masalskis at one end, the Czechs counted on their own goaltender, Tomas Vokoun, to make two highlight-reel saves -- one during a second-period two-man Latvian advantage and the other on a clean cut-in by Armands Berzins midway through the third.
Latvia finally broke through against Vokoun when Martins Cipulis, the man who had been robbed on the five-on-three, outworked defenseman Roman Polak in front to chip a loose puck over Vokoun with 7:58 left in regulation. And when Mikelis Redlihs tucked a rebound off the backboards behind a sprawling Vokoun with 3:41 left, it was stunningly tied.
The relaxed setting and the relatively laid-back crowd -- at least in comparison with the raucous gatherings that have been standard downtown at Canada Hockey Place -- made it seem as if this was a game with little at stake and in which the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Both teams, obviously, were facing elimination -- a far more terrifying prospect for a Czech team with realistic medal expectations. And because Masalskis refused to accept that he was overmatched or buckle under the sheer volume of high-quality shots he has faced in this tournament, the outcome was anything but decided through 40 minutes.
In fact, if not for their ability to kill off a lengthy five-on-three Latvia power play early in the second period -- with a superb Tomas Vokoun save that required the confirmation of video review -- the Czechs might have had even less of a cushion than the 2-0 lead they took into the third.
That was largely because Masalskis stood tall after allowing a couple of early goals on plays around his net.
Tomas Rolinek gave the Czechs an early lead when, 5:52 into the game, he backhanded the rebound of a Filip Kuba power-play slapper past a helpless Masalskis. And Fleischmann made it 2-0 by skating onto a feed out of the corner from the Boston Bruins’ David Krejci and ripping one top shelf over Masalskis’ blocker midway through the first.
That was all the Czechs would get off 31 shots through two periods against the Latvian goaltender -- including a rocket by Tomas Plekanec 12:33 into the second that stuck Masalskis in the collarbone, causing him to buckle and ask referee Bill McCreary to stop play. The Latvian trainer applied a numbing spray in the crease and gave Masalskis another spritz at the first subsequent play stoppage.
And Masalskis continued to repel threatening Czech shots.
As if not being able to beat a goaltender who had allowed a tournament-high 18 goals coming into the game weren’t troubling enough for the Czechs, there was this: Jagr left the ice just 35 seconds into a power play early in the second period after flubbing a put-back off the left post. After bobbing his head from side to side on the bench as if his neck were bothering him, Jagr departed for the dressing room and he did not return for the third period.