It wasn't great, but it was better.
That's pretty much the best way to describe the Czech Republic's performance on Friday where it was able to pick up its first win of the 2014 Olympics by knocking off a hard-working Latvia team, 4-2, to bounce back from a rather forgettable performance in its Sochi debut earlier in the week.
Even though the Czech Republic seemed to be in control for most of the final period with a two-goal lead, it still managed to get a little too close for comfort at the end as Latvia had an extended 5-on-3 advantage. But thanks to an aggressive penalty kill led by a couple of point-blank shot blocks by Zbynek Michalek, and a couple of near misses by the Latvian power play, the score never got any closer.
After not dressing for the opener against Sweden, Ondrej Pavelec got the start in net and while he wasn't really tested all that much, allowed two goals on 20 shots.
Perhaps the biggest sign of progress for the Czechs in this game is the simple fact they used some of their more skilled players a little more often, particularly Ales Hemsky, who spent most of the game against Sweden glued to the bench, and Martin Hanzal who was reportedly a healthy scratch. The lack of minutes for Hemsky and the absence of Hanzal just added to the list of puzzling moves (like leaving Radim Vrbata and Jiri Hudler off of the roster) by the Czech team leading up to the tournament, especially as guys like Roman Cervenka and the seemingly ageless Petr Nedved continue to play such prominent roles on the team.
Hemsky's presence was felt almost immediately on Friday as he created a couple of chances on his first shifts and later added an assist on Erat's goal that opened the scoring. Hanzal assisted on Zidlicky's goal that gave the Czech Republic its two-goal lead to give itself some breathing room after Latvia tied the game in the second period.
It was the second straight game that Latvia was able to keep the score close after losing on a last-second goal against Switzerland in the opener. So far in two games Latvia has been outscored by just a 5-2 margin, which is a pretty big step up from their 2010 performance when they not only failed to win a game in the preliminary round but were outscored by 15 goals.
A lot of credit for that improvement has to go to the play of goaltender Edgars Masalskis. Even though he didn't look anywhere near as good as he did against Switzerland and was on the hook for four goals on Friday, he still made several big saves to keep the game close and within reach. If nothing else he's helped keep Latvia's goal differential down, which would eventually play a role in tiebreakers.
Latvia wraps up group play on Saturday against Sweden, while the Czech Republic takes on Switzerland.