VANCOUVER - The Czechs were rampaging. They were roaring on their way to the game to which they've been pointing all along - Sunday's showdown with Russia. And poor Latvia was merely a speed bump for them to ignore.
But then, for whatever reason, the Czechs took their foot off the pedal. Or, to be more accurate, they stopped driving straight down the road and began weaving all over the place.
So what should have been a routine tune-up turned into a bit of a problem. But if the Czechs have shown anything through two games in these Olympics, it is that they know how to sit on a third-period lead -- and they did just that, until they had hatched a 5-2 victory over Latvia on Friday afternoon in Canada Hockey Place that kept them atop Group B heading into the final set of round-robin games.
As long as they don't lose in regulation to Russia on Sunday, the Czechs will win Group B, the most difficult of the three in this phase of the tournament, and advance directly to Wednesday's quarterfinals.
"It's going to be a helluva game," Czech captain Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils said. "On one team you've probably got the most talented guys. It's going to be a challenge. We're looking forward to that. But we have to play a lot better than we did tonight."
Entirely too pleased with themselves after an explosive start gave them a 3-0 lead just 5:07 into the game, the Czechs played for style points rather than goals. It was often pretty to watch, but not very productive.
Though a power-play goal by Tomas Kaberle stretched their lead to 4-0 early in the second period, the Czechs had allowed the Latvians to get their feet back under them after they nearly were knocked out.
"We just stopped," Elias said. "We started kind of holding the puck too much and not moving quick enough and not shooting it and trying to make plays around the net too much instead of taking it right to the net. Those first three goals we made a couple of nice plays. But at the same time, we were shooting the puck a lot so we were creating options."
Said Czech winger Jaromir Jagr, who played a second straight commanding game and again scored a goal and added an assist: "We had the start we wanted to. We wanted to have a good start. That's what we did. First five minutes, we had a lead, 3-0. Then we just stopped playing our hockey. We started playing around and not shooting enough and that's why we stopped playing our game and all of a sudden, it was 4-2 and a battle to the end."
The battle was joined when the Latvians got goals from Kristaps Sotnieks and Girts Ankipans within the final 4:30 of the second to cut it to 4-2. The pro-Latvian crowd -- some Latvians but plenty of Canadians caught up in the infectious celebration -- began chanting "Lat-Vi-A!" The Latvians, with only two NHLers in their lineup, tried to oblige their pleas.
However, just as they had two nights before in holding off Slovakia, the Czechs protected a two-goal lead in the final period until Elias sailed a rink-length shot into an empty net with 18 seconds remaining.
So the Czechs are unblemished, record-wise, going into the match with Russia, which was stunned in a shootout by Slovakia Thursday night. But the Czech machine is hardly firing on all cylinders.
The top line of Elias, Tomas Plekanec and Martin Havlat has yet to really erupt -- and those lengthy lapses in focus and intensity figure to be punished later in the tournament unless the Czechs eliminate them.
But then, they also have a resurgent Jagr dominating the puck on most of his shifts. They've also got a goaltender, Tomas Vokoun, who is playing with confidence -- even amid the predictable rumors that the Florida Panthers might ask him to waive his no-trade clause (they haven't yet) before the NHL trade deadline on March 3.
"Obviously, I follow hockey, so I have read some things," Vokoun said after his 16-save performance. "But I haven't been approached by Florida. So until I hear otherwise I'll just treat them as rumors and I'm playing for Florida."