Till we meet again

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Every other year it's been "not." But, ready or not, here they come.

Based on what we saw here last night, Canada has never looked more ready, more prepared or more in sync for the IIHF World Hockey Championships to begin.

Joe Thornton scored with 2:24 remaining to give Canada a 2-1 win over the Czech Republic, the team which is no worse than second favourite to Canada.

Last year, in the same game, the final pre-tournament game prior to beginning the event, Canada lost 8-5 to the Czechs.

This year it's dramatically different.

a) Their coach doesn't appear to be having a nervous breakdown like Joel Quenneville after this game last year.

b) The team isn't having many breakdowns, either.

Last year the Czechs looked, for all the world, like the best team in the tournament. They would beat Canada 6-2 a week later in a game that counted before experiencing a shocking loss in the quarter-final crossover elimination game.

BENCHMARK

Ty Conklin and Team USA beat them in a shootout and they failed to manufacture a medal as tournament hosts.

"We knew this game would be the benchmark in terms of how far we've come and how far we have to go. We still have a way to go, but compared to last year, I think we're way further ahead," said Tom Renney, the assistant coach who will be behind the bench for his ninth world championship when Canada opens the tournament against Latvia tomorrow in Innsbruck.

With Canada in the capital of the Tyrol and the Czechs in the Vienna half of the tournament, the two teams have no chance of facing each other until the playoffs.

"We played pretty well," said head coach Marc Habscheid. "They have a good team.

"As the game went on we got better and better. That's the progress that we want. We played a good team in a great atmosphere," he added of the game in the old arena, the one where Kurt Browning won his last world figure-skating championship here in 1993.

Last year's game, and the tournament which followed, was held in the new state-of-the-art NHL-calibre Sazka Arena on the other side of this stunningly beautiful city.

The old building has had a major facelift since Browning and the figure skaters played the place a dozen years ago. And it was a wonderful scene on an ice surface - plastered with 23 ads from the blue-line in, another one at centre ice and two see-through Skoda ads on the glass behind the nets. Televised nationally, the game drew a crowd of 13,487 fans, pumped back up about the Czechs' chances despite what happened last year.

"Our players wanted this type of game and really stepped up. They knew they were going to be playing a good team before a big crowd," said Habscheid of the tilt which was played for real by both teams, although the Czechs didn't play Jaromir Jagr and the Canadians sat Martin Brodeur and Ed Jovanovski - nursing a minor injury which won't prevent him from returning tomorrow.

BIG SAVES

If there was any concern about Roberto Luongo, who sat out the entire lockout season and had only played half a game against Team USA before he was given the entire 60 minutes this night, it was erased.

"As you saw, he made some big saves for us," said Habscheid, who watched his team go down 1-0 in the first period on a goal by Petr Prucha before Thornton set up Simon Gagne to tie it in the second minute of the second period.

"Luongo was big. He kept us in and let us get our feet under us," said Wade Redden.

Luongo made 37 saves compared to 31 by Thomas Vokoun in the Czech nets. Vokoun also played well. He had been a worry after a so-so season and a 5-0 loss to the Slovaks as the Czechs opened their pre-tournament schedule two weeks ago.

The Czechs also lost 4-0 to Sweden before Vokoun bounced back and beat the Slovaks 2-1 prior to playing Canada.

Coach Vladimir Ruzicka said he was happy with the test the game provided his team, despite the result.

Both teams left here believing there's an excellent chance they'll be meeting at the end of the tournament.

On with the show. This is it.


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