TURIN, Italy - When the Czech Republic’s Martin Straka coolly shot the puck into an empty net for the clinching goal, the players on Slovakia’s bench groaned, sagged and cursed. Richard Kapus broke his stick with one infuriated swing at the boards.
The Czechs had gotten the best of their little brothers once again, and the Slovaks failed to get one victory that might be more valuable than gold.
The Czech Republic knocked previously unbeaten Slovakia out of the Olympic men’s hockey tournament with a 3-1 victory in a lively border battle Wednesday night. Martin Rucinsky scored a short-handed goal and third-string goalie Milan Hnilicka made 20 saves as the Czechs rebounded impressively after a mediocre preliminary round.
The win wasn’t surprising for a Czech team expected to be a top medal contender — but the loss was crushing to the Slovaks, who had more than Olympic glory riding on this game against the elite, star-studded half of the former Czechoslovakia.
“I think they feel that way,” Czech star Jaromir Jagr said. “To beat us is probably more important to them than to win the gold. I don’t think it’s helping them. You have to have a clear head and not be too motivated.”
Slovakia roared through the preliminary round with five straight victories, winning its group. When the Slovaks learned of their quarterfinal matchup, they were excited by the opportunity — perhaps too excited by the chance to erase 13 years of frustration and inferiority.
“Maybe the pressure was too much for us, and we couldn’t handle it,” Slovak forward Peter Bondra said.
Forward Miroslav Satan acknowledged his nation’s reputation as the “little brother” to the Czechs in hockey circles, but said they harbored dreams that the Olympic meeting would be “the biggest day in the history of Slovakia.”
Slovakia played tight
Instead, the Czechs had all the poise, passion and crisp execution the Slovaks lacked.
Slovakia seemed tense and tight from the moment goalie Peter Budaj slipped while taking the ice for the pregame skate. With sharp passing and occasionally brilliant defense, the Czechs dominated the first two periods and held on in the third.
“I don’t know where it came out of, because we haven’t played that well before here,” said Hnilicka, the surprising starter in place of inconsistent Tomas Vokoun.
The Czech Republic will face Sweden on Friday. Finland meets Russia in the other semifinal.
The Czechs went 2-3 in the preliminary round, including an embarrassing loss to Switzerland, but they were strong from the opening faceoff against Slovakia. Rucinsky, of the NHL’s New York Rangers, scored after intercepting Satan’s pass in the first period, and Colorado’s Milan Hejduk added a goal on a rebound of Rucinsky’s shot in the second.
“At the beginning of the tournament, we weren’t playing as a team,” Rucinsky said. “We weren’t satisfied, but just before the Canada game, we sat down and talked about just going out and playing our game. Since then, we’ve been building momentum, and it carried over.”
The Slovaks finally scored when Czech defenseman Marek Zidlicky fell down in the third period, and Marian Gaborik converted when he had an unobstructed look at the net.
But Hnilicka was sturdy in the third period while playing in place of Vokoun and injured Dominik Hasek. Moments after Hnilicka covered a loose puck in the crease with his back, Straka scored the clincher.
Czechoslovakia existed from 1918 until Jan. 1, 1993, when it peacefully split into two nations. It was a hockey power, winning four Olympic silver medals, four bronzes and six world championships from 1920-92.
The Czechs emerged from the split in better hockey shape, winning the gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Games and at the following three world championships from 1999-01 — and again last year. Slovakia had few players on the final Czechoslovak team, but has made steady international progress to a top-tier world ranking. The Slovaks’ fifth-place finish in Turin is their best yet.