On the same day that cross-country skier Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway nearly blew a gold medal by celebrating before he crossed the line, the Czech Republic almost blew what appeared to be an easy victory for themselves, surviving a late onslaught by Slovakia to win, 5-3.
While Svendsen's premature celebration led to a photo finish that showed he narrowly beat a stretching Martin Fourcade to the finish line, the Czechs nearly blew a 4-0 lead they had accumulated by the second period behind two Roman Cervenka goals.
But Marian Hossa (two goals) and the Slovaks came up just short despite scoring three straight goals of their own. Ondrej Pavelec came up big for the Czechs, stopping 29 of 32 shots and holding firm down the stretch.
Certainly, these two border nations put on quite a show. And while they are no doubt rivals—they once shared a nation, after all—the rivalry isn't perhaps as heated as you might think, as Jaromir Jagr told Slovak newspaper Sme (via Bloomberg) before the game:
There are many mixed families, more than in other countries—Slovaks live in the Czech Republic and vice versa. If somebody feels any rivalry from the past, it’s their problem. I think that if we get knocked out, many people at home will root for the Slovaks.
Perhaps many Slovaks will now be rooting for the Czech Republic, instead.
The Czechs struck first, as Martin Marincin's penalty set up the power play for the Czech Republic. The country quickly capitalized, as Ales Hemsky scored just 15 seconds into the man advantage.
From the Edmonton Oilers on Twitter:
Less than a minute later, Roman Cervenka doubled the lead for the Czechs. Larry Lage of the Associated Press has more on that goal:
Cervenka scored off a rebound that Plekanec created by beating the D on a rush and getting a shot on net to put Czechs up 2-0 vs Slovakia— Larry Lage (@LarryLage) February 18, 2014
It took the Czechs just three minutes in the second period to extend the lead. After Marian Hossa was called for hooking, David Krejci ripped a top-shelf one-timer to give the Czech Republic a 3-0 lead.
Joe Haggerty of CSNNE has more:
What a rocket from David Krejci on 3rd Czech Republic goal. Slovakia just not looking good in Olympics. No Gaborik/Visnovsky hurts aging tm— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) February 18, 2014
Tomas Kaberle earned his second assist for his perfectly placed pass from the point.
While Slovakia really increased their intensity in the second period and began to play better, they were punished for nearly every mistake. Case in point was Cervenka's second goal, as he stole the puck just outside of his own blue line and raced toward the goal on a breakaway, finishing with a lovely fake-to-deke-to-backhand maneuver before roofing the puck from a nearly impossible angle.
Cervenka's goal was so pretty, he even had the spectators a bit fooled. From Scott Cullen of TSN:
Thought Cervenka had gone too far on that deke, but still had the room to tuck it under the bar. Nice finish.— Scott Cullen (@tsnscottcullen) February 18, 2014
But finally, Slovakia scored. And from there on out, it was a different game.
Marian Hossa scored with just over a minute remaining in the second period for Slovakia, assisted by Andrej Sekera and Michal Handzus, leaving the trailing team the slightest glimmer of hope for a potential comeback heading into the third period.
The Slovaks really began to take the game to the Czech Republic in the third period, cutting the deficit to two goals when Hossa struck again at the 12:36 mark. It was the 10th straight shot from Slovakia without a replay from the Czechs.
And it continued to get more interesting. A minute-and-a-half later, the Czechs were caught in a line change and Tomas Surovy found himself with a chance to let rip. He didn't disappoint, cutting the deficit to just one goal.
At that point, everyone was on the edge of their seats, as Bleacher Report's Dan Levy noted:
Slovakia making this a game. 4-3 Czechs with 11:09 to go. Doc Emrick is in cardiac mode.— Dan Levy (@DanLevyThinks) February 18, 2014
But despite Slovakia's best efforts to tie the game, the Czechs managed to hold onto the lead and eventually added an empty-net goal by Tomas Plekanec with just under a minute to play.
The Czech Republic will now have a very difficult test against the United States on Wednesday. The United States earned a bye after winning all three of their games, including a controversial shootout win over the host Russians.
The Czechs are now 2-2, though losses to Switzerland and Sweden in the preliminary round don't bode well for their chances against the Americans, nor does their performance late in the game against Slovakia.
Still, with a strong contingent of NHL talent, the Czechs won't roll over against the favored United States.