Canada beats Czech Republic in sledge hockey thriller
Canadians undefeated heading into Paralympic semis
Team Canada came on strong right out of the gate on Tuesday, taking two solid shots in the first minute of their sledge hockey game against the Czech Republic at the Sochi Paralympics.
But it took another 21 and a half minutes before Canada got on the board. With 7:27 to go in the second period, captain Greg Westlake shot the puck off the top bar and into the corner of the net off a pass from forward Billy Bridges.
It was a much-needed goal for Canada, which wanted to remain undefeated in heading into the playoffs. They did it, but not without some stress.
By the end of the first period, Canada had just four shots on goal and the Czechs had three, sure proof that the weaker Czechs would be unwilling to give the game up without a fight.
The strongest player on the Czech team was easily goalie Michael Vapenka, who used his hulking size — he's six feet, four inches — to cover his crease relentlessly. He denied 18 of Canada's shots, many in the third period, drawing comparisons by the commentators to the Czech Republic's most famous goalie, former National Hockey League player Dominik Hasek.
By the middle of the final period, it was clear the Czechs needed a break to tie the game and keep them in it, but it never came.
They had a chance with 6:46 left to go, when Canada's Kevin Rempel got a two-minute penalty for hooking behind the Czech net. But strong goaltending by Canada's Corbin Watson — unbeaten in these Games — helped kill the power play and left the Czechs scoreless.
"It was a great performance from our team," Czech coach Jiri Briza said after the game, acknowledging his players were intimated by the Canadian team.
"They look at the Canadian and USA players and say, 'Oh my God, look at them. They are so good'. I have to say, 'No, you are good, as good as they are. Even the Canadian players are made of bones and skin and muscles, just like we are'."
The win was something of a gift for Canadian forward Tyler McGregor — it was his birthday.
"I haven't done anything special, I just concentrated on the game," McGregor said. "For sure, winning gold would be the icing on the cake."
Canada's win means it will play fourth-seed USA in the semifinals on Thursday at 12 p.m. ET (to stream live on cbc.ca/paralympics.)
Playing the States "is not too bad," Westlake said after Tuesday's game. "I think they're not too pumped about it, either. We are two great teams and have been waiting for this game for too long."
There were three other sledge hockey games on Tuesday.
- Russia defeated the United States 2-1 to secure second place headed into the semifinals.
- Norway blanked Sweden 2-0.
- Italy beat Korea 2-1.
With files from the Paralympic News Service