We are on our way in the 2020 World Junior Hockey Championship. Starting us off on Boxing Day; Russia against the home team from the Czech Republic. This immediately meant a duel between two of the tournament’s top goalie prospects; Yaroslav Askarov and Lukas Dostal.
The hosts, backed by a frenetic audience in Ostrava, got off to a hot start when they scored on the first power play of the game a little more than two minutes in. Simon Kubicek, usually playing in the WHL with the Seattle Thunderbirds and an eligible for next year’s draft, shot from the blue line and surprised Askarov with his quick release.
Minutes later the crowd had another reason to celebrate as Jan Mysak, another 2020 draft prospect, made it 2-0 for the Czechs.
The home team’s impressive start was surprising considering they were already without one of their top players, forward Jakub Lauko, who was helped to the locker room early with a leg injury after being on the receiving end of an unfortunate mid-ice hit.
Things looked bleak for the heavily favoured Russian team. However, they would manage to claw their way back and tie the contest thanks to penalties to their opponents. Even if none of the goals came on the power play, both of them were results of a heavy two-minute domination ending with the puck in the net seconds after the teams became equal in strength again.
First, Anton Khovanov and captain Grigori Denisenko assisted defender Yegor Zamula, who waited in the right shooting lane and took advantage of heavy traffic in front of Dostal. Minutes later, another long offensive sequence ended with Vancouver Canucks first-round pick Vasili Podkolzin finding the puck in the crease with no chance for the Czech netminder to react. This goal also meant the first point of the tournament for last year’s top defenceman, Montreal Canadiens prospect Alexander Romanov, who was attributed with the second assist.
It was an aggressive and fast-paced first period, where seven players received minor penalties and Russia dominated the shots, outshooting their opponents 18-5, with just one of the home team’s shots registered during the last 12 minutes of play.
Russia was working on taking the lead, but Matej Blümel surprised everyone, including Askarov, with a well-timed shot from a bad angle. Czech Republic regained the lead and Askarov, who has been as highly touted as any goaltending prospect in the last decade, had conceded three goals on a single-digit number of shots.
If Russia’s coaching staff at the time was pondering a goalie change, they immediately got other, better things on their mind when Zamula tied the game with his second of the day only 45 seconds later.
Late in the period, a penalty on Nikita Rtishchev gave Czech Republic a formidable chance to go on top yet again with a 40-second five-on-three. Jan Jenik immediately demonstrated his skills to slap one past Askarov and make it 4-3.
Seconds later and still a man down, Anton Malyshev took his second penalty of the day. This gave the home team yet another, longer chance to play two men up. Russia eventually weathered the storm to make sure that the Czech advantage remained just one goal.
Before the start of the third period, head coach Valeri Bragin decided that he had seen enough of Askarov and replaced him with Bars Kazan’s Amir Miftakhov.
Russia spent most of the third period chasing that fourth goal to tie it up, without creating any first-class chances. With a few minutes left, the already undisciplined Russian team became desperate and irritated, taking their seventh and eight penalty of the game and giving the Czechs yet another opportunity to play five-on-three. The last of the penalties gave the culprit, Russian defender Danila Galenyuk, a one-way trip to the locker room with three-and-a-half minutes left.
Russia extracted the last of their energy trying to come up with a game tying goal, removing Miftakhov and playing six-on-five once they had survived the penalty kill, but to no gain. To the joy of the home crowd, the Czech Republic won their first game of the tournament against their rivals.
Both teams will now recharge for Saturday and their second outing of round robin, where the Czechs will face off against Germany, and Russia will try to overcome the difficult challenge of playing Canada.