January 01, 2012

Petr Mrazek Helps Lead Czech Republic over United States in Alberta

When the IIHF’s World Men’s Under-20 championship is played during the holiday season, all eyes in this country focus on the young men in red and white; Team Canada. But every now and then, a performance is so outstanding or so unique, that it’s impossible to ignore. On December 30th, 2011, that performance came from Czech Republican and Ottawa 67’s goaltender Petr Mrazek.

When it appeared that the favoured American squad had the Czechs on the ropes, Mrazek stood his ground. After one period of play, he had stopped 18 shots in comparison to USA’s Jack Campbell, who had made five. The score was 1-1. By the second period, that total was up to 32 saves for the Vitkovice native. This time, it was a 2-2 tie.

To fully describe the situation in the final minutes of the third period would be nearly impossible. If you have 20-40 minutes to spare, I suggest checking out the third period, or at least the final 10 minutes, on TSN’s Video On Demand. Whether you like the Czechs or not, I believe it’s impossible for 67’s fans to watch the end of this game without forming a huge smile.

Mrazek may or may not have caused Josh Archibald to go too wide on a penalty shot – either way he was credited with a save. He responded with an emphatic fist pump, the same celebration that was booed by Canadian fans just two nights before after he stopped Canadian Senators prospect Mark Stone on a penalty shot. This time, it sent the pro-Czech Edmonton fans into a frenzy.

The Czechs survived a pair of wild goal-mouth scrambles before blowing the game open with two goals less than a minute and a half apart. On the goal that gave them a 4-2 lead, Tomas Filippi’s second of the contest, the goaltender joined the celebration by diving over the pile of Czech players. Mrazek was going insane and the fans joined in on his enthusiasm.

To top off the night, the energetic netminder fired the puck down the ice and missed the net by mere inches in the final two minutes. Still, Mrazek received a standing ovation for his efforts and, as the final buzzer sounded to give his side a 5-2 win (Petr Holik added an empty netter), lead a celebration that somehow surpassed his previous antics.

There’s still a somewhat unfortunate side to this. Firstly, as Petr was named the player of the game in a 5-0 loss to Team Canada, he was no longer eligible to win player of the game again in the preliminary round despite his 52-save performance. Holik received the honours instead.

It’s also unfortunate that while Mrazek has had his share of memorable games in an Ottawa uniform, he’s never been able to showcase it the way he did on that afternoon. Due to political reasons and a transferring fee with his hometown team, the 19-year old who sits second in the Ontario Hockey League in wins with 16 had to wait until this season to play on a world stage. Better late than never, though, I suppose.

Furthermore, Ottawa isn’t generally a team that garners the attention of the light-casual junior hockey fan. For Canadian supporters who don’t watch CHL hockey with regularity, they’re attracted to highly touted NHL draft picks (Jonathan Huburdeau with Saint John last year, Taylor Hall with Windsor, John Tavares with Oshawa/London) or outstanding performances on national television (Erie Otters goaltender Jaroslav Janus for Slovakia in 2009, Portland Winterhawks forward Nino Niederreiter for Switzerland in 2010).

The argument could be made that Logan Couture was a high-level prospect despite never being invited to Canada's junior camp, but Ottawa was never a team with a large bandwagon following. As for national exposure, the 67’s haven’t sent a representative to the Canadian Under-20 team since Brendan Bell went to Halifax/Cape Breton for the 2003 tournament. Even when they were represented in past years, it was usually for non-medaling European countries (Adam Sedlak for Czech Republic last season). This season, the pattern continued, as Tyler Toffoli and Cody Ceci were cut from Team Canada and Shane Prince was cut from Team USA.

Perhaps that’s what makes this event so much more special. Ottawa isn’t used to being in the junior hockey limelight, especially since Brian Kilrea stepped down as coach. Yet the analysts on TSN, known for repeatedly mentioning junior teams no matter what level of hockey they’re showcasing, made sure that fans across the country knew where Mrazek played in the regular season. Every time he had an elaborate celebration, the “67” on the back of his mask was shown to everyone who had tuned in.

In Mrazek’s absence, Michael Nishi has put up some good numbers of his own, allowing one goal in Ottawa’s last two games vs. Kingston and Peterborough. When Mrazek and Shayne Campbell (injury) return, Ottawa is going to have tremendous depth in between the pipes.

Despite losing to Canada and Finland, the Czech’s finish third in Group B and will face the Russians in tomorrow night’s quarterfinals at 9PM. Do Petr Mrazek and the Czech Republic have another upset, maybe two, maybe three, left in them? As long as they aren’t playing against Team Canada, I’m sure Ottawa fans will be rooting for the Czechs the rest of the way.

No comments: