By – IIHF.com
Switzerland has punched its ticket to Korea, defeating the Czech Republic 4-1 and qualifying for the country’s fourth straight Olympics.
Swiss star forwards Alina Muller and Lara Stalder each scored twice, while Florence Schelling allowed an early goal but shut the door down on the Czechs the rest of the way to earn Player of the Game honours.
“Unbelievable, its what we’ve been dreaming of since last summer,” said Stalder, who finished the tournament as the top point scorer with eight goals and four assists in three games.
“I’m really tired, and happy! We gave it all in the end,” said Muller. “Everyone in the room deserved this, it would have been so hard to miss the Olympics and I’m happy that the Swiss can participate.”
Going into the third period holding a slim 2-1 lead, the outcome was far from certain as the Swiss were battling a hard-nosed Czech team playing fast north-south hockey.
But Muller, who has been unstoppable on the Swiss power play in this tournament, scored her second goal of the game, with a shot from the side of the net on the man advantage to give Switzerland some breathing room early in the period.
The Czech’s best opportunity to cut the lead came midway through the third, but Simona Studentova’s open shot on a breakaway rang off Schelling’s right post. After the missed chance, the Czech offence fell silent and Stalder finished things off with an empty netter sending Switzerland to PyeongChang 2018, the country’s fourth straight Olympic Games.
“It’s amazing to win it here at home, amazing too that so many people came out to cheer us on,” said Schelling after the game.
The Swiss came into the game as the clear favourites, veterans of three Olympics and Sochi 2014 bronze medallists. However, Switzerland’s only other game against the Czechs at the senior women’s level came at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, a 3-1 Czech victory.
In front of a loud crowd of local fans in the Swiss ski resort town of Arosa, the Czechs had a tall order to fill, trying to contain a team that has scored ten goals in two games and led by forwards Lara Stalder and Alina Muller who combined for 12 points in that span.
The game was fast paced right from puck drop. In the first period, an aggressive Czech Republic forecheck kept the Swiss hemmed in in their own zone. The Czechs had a great opportunity to take some momentum away from the hometown Swiss with an early power play, but Tereza Vanisova missed on an open shot in front of the net.
The hard work paid off though late in the period, when a deflected clearing attempt gave the puck to Katerina Mrazova in front of the net. Her shot was stopped by Schelling, but Aneta Ledlova was there for the rebound and put the Czechs up 1-0.
A Lara Benz hooking penalty put the Swiss on their heels, but the team was able to get out of the period down by just a goal.
For most of the second period, the Czechs continued to do all the right things – hard forechecking and consistent shot blocking – to frustrate the Swiss star forwards. But the Swiss finally hit paydirt with 5:41 remaining, when tournament top scorer Lara Stalder found her linemate Alina Muller with a precision pass to the side of the net for the one-timer.
Then the vaunted Swiss power play struck with just 18 seconds left in the period. This time it was Muller setting up Stalder for a blast from the point to put the Swiss up 2-1 going into the third, a lead the Swiss would never relinquish.
“They’re fantastic, the way they played this whole tournament was absolutely amazing,” said Schelling of Muller and Stalder. “In my opinion they won the tournament for us, they have all doors open to them and if they play the way they have in this tournament then we are going to be really good in the future.”
Although the team finished one win short of the Games, the Czechs battled hard and took a major step forward in the country’s women’s hockey development with a strong showing at the Olympic Qualification.
“I definitely think we left it out there, too bad we didn’t score more goals on the power play but I’m definitely proud of our team,” said Czech captain Alena Polenska. “We have a young team but the girls work hard and leave everything out there and I hope we get another chance in four years.”