Czechs battle past U.S.A.

KEN WIEBE -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 12:02 PM ET

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- And so the freefall continues for Team U.S.A. Roughly 24 hours after losing to Belarus and missing an opportunity to clinch top spot in Group A, the United States slipped from first to third after dropping a gut-wrenching 3-1 decision to the Czech Republic last night before a disheartened crowd of 8,734 at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

CZECH REPUBLIC 3 U.S. 1

The loss means the defending champs finish 2-2 in the round-robin portion of the 2005 World Junior Hockey Championship and are forced to play in tomorrow's quarter-final against Sweden, who finished second in Group B.

Tomorrow's other quarter-final features the Czech Republic and Finland, who finished third in Group B.

In a move that had observers throughout the building shaking their collective heads in disbelief, the Czechs went with backup Vladislav Koutsky in goal instead of Marek Schwarz, a first round pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2004 who plays for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL.

The hunch turned out to be brilliant as Koutsky played well and had the Americans frustrated at almost every turn, including a pad save on Drew Stafford just over eight minutes into the third.

Only Dan Fritsche was able to beat Koutsky and that marker came with 53 seconds to go in the second period -- after the Americans had fallen behind 2-0 on goals from Rostislav Olesz, 12:56 into the contest, and Lukas Kaspar, 57 seconds into the second.

INCONSISTENT OUTING

It was another inconsistent outing for American goalie Al Montoya, who backstopped the U.S. to the gold over Canada last year in Finland. Montoya made several outstanding saves with the game on the line but gave up two soft goals as his team fell behind.

Since the Americans needed an outright win to finish first, they pulled Montoya with more than three minutes to go in the contest in an attempt to score the equalizer.

With five seconds left, Milan Hluchy scored into an empty-net to secure victory.

In other Group A action yesterday, Alexander Ovechkin scored twice and added an assist to lead Russia to a 6-1 win over Switzerland.

The win helped Russia improve to 3-1 in the tournament and earn a bye into Sunday's other semifinal.

Russia will face the winner of the Sweden and the U.S., while Canada meets the winner of the Czech Republic and Finland.


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