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Gustavsson shines; It’s not quite like 1968, but Czech Republic beats the Russians again -- on guts

It may not be on quite the same scale as soccer’s World Cup, but we best not try to tell anyone who hails from the Czech Republic who cares about hockey that yesterday’s win over Russia at the World Championships means nothing.

“Second-tier” tournament or not, as some have suggested, how can we not admire the display of guts by the home side Germans at this event as well as the gold-medal winners from the Czech Republic. That gold-medal win over Russia was a textbook clinic in determination, drive and all the things that we sometimes say are missing at the pro level, populated by multi-millionaire players. This wasn’t about money, it was pure pride that drove all the teams in this event. Without the cache associated with an Olympic tournament, the effort was all the more impressive.

Honestly, even the most ardent hockey fans probably couldn’t name ten guys on the Czech team heading into this tournament. Five? We know Jagr is an all-time great, but aging. Vokoun played like all good goalies can when they are “in the zone”. He was the difference-maker again yesterday.

I remember the spring of 1968, when I was 15. Hopefully readers will correct me if I’m wrong, but as I recall, the Russians won the Olympic hockey event in February in Grenoble, France. Wasn’t it shortly after that that the Russian tanks moved into the then Czechoslovakia to quell an "uprising"? (Or was it after the World Championships in April?)

My memory and sense of history may not be what they once were. But I do recall that in the World Championships in April, (I don’t recall where the event was held, just that it was, of course, in Europe) Czechoslovakia upset the Russians and it was an extremely emotional win for their national team. The political overtones were obvious, even to a naive 15 year-old who understood precious little about politics, communism or what the Soviet empire stood for.

In any event, watching the Czech team react at the final whistle Sunday demonstrated just how much this tournament meant to the players, the coaching staff, and their country. It’s a major achievement and came after Jagr publicly chastised fellow Czech natives who chose not to participate.

But, you know what? Isn’t it always better to play with people who really want to be there, then with “stars” who perhaps don’t have their hearts in it?  it sure worked this time for the Czech national team.

I never thought they had a chance, and they certainly proved me very wrong.

As for Russia, they played hard as well. They had the star-studded lineup. I’m hardly in a position to criticize while sitting comfortably watching the fast-paged, intense final moments, but I thought they were betrayed by one pass too many with about 25 seconds to go, when they needed a goal to send the game into overtime. The ill-fated pass led to a turnover, a clearing by the Czech defense, and one last, rushed, failed attempt.

We here may choose to diminish this event as “second-tier”, in part because some top guys aren’t there, and in part because Canada fared poorly. But The NHL playoffs haven’t been the only place where grit and talent are on display this spring.

It was great to see Jonas Gustavsson (who finished with a sparkling .936 save percentage in the Championships), from a Leaf perspective, close off the event in great fashion in the bronze-medal game. The Germans are not exactly an offensive juggernaut, but it was still good that Gustavsson maintained his level of play.

As for the Germans, if ever a team deserved a “fourth-place” medal for being a valiant, over-achieving underdog, it was the German national team.

For Gustavsson and Carl Gunnarsson (who played more minutes than Victor Hedman yesterday), it was one more high-level game which provided the kind of high-stakes pressure they need to experience in light of the Leafs missing the playoffs.

Edmonton Oilers rookie prospect Magnus Paajarvi Svensson led the Swedish team with a +8 for the event. Gunnarsson finished a +2, average 13 minutes of ice time per game. Maple Leaf winger Nikolai Kulemin set up Russian linemate Max Afinogenov for what would have been a huge goal yesterday. He finished the event +6 (I don’t think Kulemin was on the ice for an even-strength goal against in the entire tournament), further establishing himself as a guy the Leafs will need to re-sign this summer.

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