GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Three-on-three overtime on the international-sized ice is flat-out bonkers, especially since the teams don’t change ends and face the long change the way Canada and the Czech Republic did Saturday at the Pyeongchang Olympics. The pace is frenetic, the transitions are immediate and the space to operate appears even more endless than it does in the NHL.
Andrew Ebbett thought he might get off on a breakaway during the crazed stanza but was out of juice, so he sprung Mat Robinson, who started the play by stealing the puck and hustled his way onto the attack. But on the messy ice the defenceman lost the puck before he could fire a shot away, another in a series of opportunities the Canadians couldn’t covert.
"Ugh," Robinson said afterwards. "I probably won’t be able to sleep tonight."
The same surely extends to some of his teammates after a 3-2 shootout loss to the Czech Republic at Gangneung Hockey Centre in a very physical and tremendously entertaining contest, a result that may cost the two-time defending Olympic champions a chance to advance directly to the quarter-finals.
It’s still possible – there are a myriad of convoluted scenarios that would allow them to finish with the fourth best record and claim the final of the four spots. But, presuming the Czech Republic beats Switzerland in its finale to clinch top spot in Group A and its place in the quarters, the Canadians must first do their work and rebound against South Korea in their last preliminary round contest Sunday night.
"It’s frustrating when you lose like that in a shootout, it’s tough," said Ebbett, who suffered a charley horse when he narrowly avoided a massive hit from Jan Kolar in the third period but recovered to finish the game. "Willie Desjardins has been preaching to us just stay with that process and we’ve got a game (Sunday), we’ve got to drop that and just move on. We still have a shot to get one of those wild-card spots, so focus on Sunday (night)."
Sure, but man, that shootout.
Canada found itself in the dreaded game-decider at the Olympics for the first time since a 3-2 win over Switzerland at the 2010 Games, when Sidney Crosby settled matters.
Lacking a generational talent with the NHL passing on Pyeongchang, Desjardins led off with fourth-line winger Maxim Lapierre, followed with Wojtek Wolski, Derek Roy and Mason Raymond and closed with defenceman Maxim Noreau, who beat Pavel Francouz but not the post, ending a run of 11 straight Olympic wins for Canada.
Czech Republic takes this one 3-2 pic.twitter.com/H9w0UIQkKf
— CBC Olympics (@CBCOlympics) February 17, 2018
Wolski was the only Canadian to score, stickhandling Francouz silly, but Petr Koukal responded immediately after and Jan Kovar beat Ben Scrivens on the next attempt to give the Czech Republic the advantage it needed.
"I thought it was going in, I must’ve pushed it wide or there was snow, but we don’t have time to dwell on that," Noreau said of his shot. "We played really hard (and had) a couple bad bounces where we could’ve got the puck on our stick on a rebound and had a tap-in goal or something."
The baddest bounce for Canada came late in the second period, while on a two-man advantage after Chris Lee got mixed up with Michal Jordan, who pushed the Canadian defenceman into the Czech bench and closed the door, leading to an interference penalty.
Shortly afterwards, Linden Vey ripped a shot off the crossbar and the score remained 2-2.
"It’s a game of inches sometimes and we had some good looks on that 5-on-3," said Vey. "We just couldn’t find a way to get one in."
Vey did some damage on a the game’s first power play when he made a clever pass in front to Raymond, who shovelled the puck in at 1:13 to open the scoring. Rene Bourque also scored on the power play while Dominik Kubalik and Jordan replied for the Czech Republic, which was outshot 33-20 through the first 65 minutes.
Scrivens made some strong stops to keep the game 2-2, throwing up his right shoulder to rob Jakub Nakladal in the second and kicking out his left leg on a Lukas Radil one-time from the slot in the third.
The iron helped him, too, when Jiri Sekac hit the crossbar with 1:05 left.
"We were one short today, so that means I’ve got to be one shot better next time," said Scrivens.
The game was physical and chippy throughout, and the Canadians had lots of trouble handling an aggressive Czech forecheck, particularly during the first period when the Europeans carried the play for extended stretches.
Unable to consistently transition the puck to space as quickly and efficiently as they did in a 5-1 victory Switzerland on Thursday, they had a tough time generating quality scoring chances, especially 5-on-5.
"They took away the middle of the ice a lot on us, so that was something we were looking to expose them on and they were in the right position there," said Robinson. "Either way we should be able to break it out and find the holes because they definitely had some and we needed to expose them."
Both Czech goals came off some scrambly play in the Canadian zone.
They tied the game 1-1 at 6:52 of the first when Scrivens deflected a centring attempt up in the air, Lee couldn’t corral the bouncing puck and Kubalik pounced on it and slipped it home.
The Czech pressure also led to some questionable decisions with the puck, as later in the first Marc-Andre Gragnani made a pass from his own corner to Raymond in front of the Canadian net, where Roman Cervenka picked his pocket and nearly scored.
Canada retook the lead at 13:30 of the first when Bourque picked up the rebound of a Maxim Noreau point shot and swiped it past Francouz on the power play for his third at the Games.
But that lead disappeared just 25 seconds into the second period when a loose puck squirted out to Jordan in the slot, where he snapped it home.
"We knew they were going to be shifty," said Robinson. "They’re strong on the stick and strong on their skates, they like to turn back and really control the puck in the corners. We knew that going into it but they were able to hold it in the corners probably a little bit longer than we wanted them to."
The Canadians know they can’t let the South Koreans do the same thing Sunday and with goal-differential a tiebreaker for the final quarter-final spot, if needed, running up the score will be important.
Maybe the Canadians will get some help from other teams, but if they don’t advance straight to the quarter-finals after the preliminary round, they will have to play a qualification game to earn a spot in the quarters.
One loss, especially in a shootout, doesn’t put them into too big a bind, but they very easily can find themselves in one with another slip from here on out.