May 14, 2006

Czechs and Slovakia flex muscles

By Steve Keating

RIGA (Reuters) - Holders the Czech Republic and Slovakia
both posted upset wins over previously unbeaten teams at the
ice hockey world championship on Sunday bringing the
quarter-final picture into sharper focus.

The Czech Republic jumped out to an early lead then held on
to post a well-deserved 6-4 win over Canada.

Marian Hossa had a goal and two assists as Slovakia thumped
Olympic champions Sweden 5-2 in a must win contest to keep
their hopes of advancing alive.

Earlier in the day, Fredrik Norrena made 18 saves to earn
the shutout as Olympic silver medalists Finland blanked Norway
3-0 while Russia beat Switzerland 6-3.

With just one game remaining for each team in qualifying
round play, the quarter-finals have taken shape.

In Group E, Finland, Canada, Czech Republic and the U.S.
have all secured spots in the final eight.

In Group F, Russia and Sweden have locked up spots with
Switzerland, Slovakia and Belarus fighting for the two
remaining places.


After a sluggish start to championship, Slovakia finally
displayed some of the form that helped carry them to the 2002
title recording a win over the Swedes, who are attempting an
unprecedented golden double by becoming the first nation to win
Olympic and world championships in the same year.

Needing a victory, the Slovakians stormed to a 3-0 second
period lead on goals from Hossa, Martin Cibak and Rene Vydareny
before Magnus Johansson and Andreas Karlsson answered for the

But Slovakia blunted the comeback with a powerplay goal
from Marcel Hossa to end the second and a shorthanded insurance
marker from Andrei Kollar early in the third.

The Czechs, who like their neighbors struggled through
preliminary round, also raced to a 3-0 lead on goals from Petr
Hubacek, David Vyborny and Tomas Plekanec before Stephane
Robidas got Canada on the scoreboard late in the opening

After being badly outworked and outshot 17-4 in the opening
period, Canada played with more urgency in the second tying the
game at 3-3 on goals from Kyle Calder and Dan Hamhuis.

A late goal by Zbynek Irgl allowed the Czechs to regain the
lead before the second intermission.


The Czech lead, however, would last only 61 seconds, Sidney
Crosby backhanding the equalizer past Milan Hnilicka for his
sixth of the championship.

The 18-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins rookie has now tallied
in all five of Canada's games and leads the championships in
scoring with 10 points.

Canada, however, could not sustain the rally, Jaroslav
Balastik notching the fifth and Martin Erat adding another to
seal the victory.

Canada coach Marc Habscheid said: "Canadian hockey is based
on passion and I don't think we had the passion we needed to
start the game.

"We came out flat. It's a tournament where there are a lot
of games in a short time and you have peaks and valleys.

"It is a period where we were flat and it's better to have
it now than later."

Following the U.S. victory over Latvia on Saturday, the
Norwegians entered the game against Finland knowing they had no
chance of advancing out of the qualifications round but they
still tested the Olympic runners-up.

The Finns scored once in each period, Jukka Hentunen, Jussi
Jokinen and Esa Pirnes all finding the net.

Deadlocked at 2-2 with the Swiss, two powerful blasts by
defensemen Dmitry Bykov and Ilya Nikulin less than two minutes
apart beat Montreal Canadiens goaltender David Aebischer to
help power Russia to their fifth straight win.

Goran Bezina brought Switzerland within one three minutes
later but late strikes by Nikolai Kulemin and Evgeni Malkin
sealed Russia's victory.