It’s gut-Czech time
It’s gut-Czech time
Host nation hopes for a medal
While some promising young Czech players are coming up, the reality is that the current crop is not quite on par with the greats who helped Czech hockey rule the world with the 1998 Olympic gold and three straight World Championships (1999-2001). That’s true at every position.
Still, this nation excels at surprises, and it’s played for a medal in four out of the last five Worlds, including gold under current coach Vladimir Ruzicka (2010) and two bronzes under Alois Hadamczik (2011, 2012). Will the O2 Arena in Prague be kinder to the home team than it was 11 years ago?
For any Czech goalie, it’s almost impossible to top what Dominik Hasek pulled off at the Nagano Olympics. Even Tomas Vokoun’s golden performances at the 2005 and 2010 Worlds cast an intimidating shadow. But goalie Ondrej Pavelec is coming off a career NHL year (2.28 GAA and 92.0 save percentage), and the 27-year-old Kladno native backstopped the Winnipeg Jets to their first playoff berth since their return to the Manitoba capital in 2011-12.
While his playoff numbers took a hit as the Jets were swept by the Anaheim Ducks, Pavelec knows the World Championship well. This’ll be the butterfly-style netminder’s fourth time at the tournament, and he was magnificent during the bronze medal run in 2011.
Pavelec is expected to get the lion’s share of the work, but the Czechs also have confidence in Alexander Salak, who joined Pavelec in Sochi and is suiting up for his third World Championship. The Sibir Novosibirsk goalie’s GAA of 1.57 was second-best in the recent KHL playoffs.
With just two NHLers, the blue line is probably the biggest question mark for the Czechs. Jan Hejda of the Colorado Avalanche remains a solid stay-at-home defenceman at age 36, while Michael Jordan of the Carolina Hurricanes is still establishing himself in the league (the longtime AHLer got into 38 NHL games this year).
Pardubice captain Petr Caslava brings an all-around package, and has been a staple on the World Championship team since 2007. But where is the blue line offence going to come from?
Unless KHL veteran Ondrej Nemec can repeat his out-of-character scoring explosion from last year’s tournament, (he’s played 38 career World Championship games and got seven of his 11 career points in Belarus), there may not be much support for the forwards, either at even strength or on the power play. The absence of Detroit’s Marek Zidlicky (concussion) is a blow.
Two powerful NHL right wings will be under the microscope at this tournament: captain Jakub Voracek and the legendary Jaromir Jagr.
In his seventh NHL season, Voracek earned a career-high 81 points. The 25-year-old contended for the scoring title right to the end, even though his Philadelphia Flyers failed to make the playoffs.
Jagr, of course, continues to rewrite the league record book at age 43. Slower than in his prime but still blessed with extraordinary strength and hands, the NHL’s fourth-leading all-time scorer (1,802 points) was part of the famous Nagano team and the last two World Championship-winning squads. Now with the Florida Panthers, he will provide inspiration and experience at every turn, and will turn on the red light too.
Veteran Martin Erat (Arizona Coyotes) and NHL sophomore Tomas Hertl (San Jose Sharks) will both be looking to bounce back after mediocre seasons. Nifty centre Roman Cervenka didn’t succeed in his NHL stint two years ago, but he’s coming off a KHL championship run with SKA St. Petersburg and has shown nice chemistry with Jagr at this event in the past.
It’s a good group, if not overly physical, with enough skill to overpower the weaker teams and hurt stronger opponents on the counterattack.
Both tactically and emotionally, Ruzicka feels like the right choice behind the bench. The 51-year-old played with Jagr in Nagano, and coached the World Championship team to its last two golds. The longtime former Slavia Praha coach was one of the most talented forwards of his era, but Ruzicka also knows how to motivate players with different skill sets to perform at their best. And nothing else will do at this tournament.
Ruzicka’s assistants include former NHL defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, ex-Litvinov player Ondrej Weissmann, who’s previously served as an assistant at two Olympics (2006, 2010) and three World Championships, and goalie coach Martin Prusek.
Keeping expectations modest is the best bet for Czech fans. There is great potential for disappointment otherwise. With both the defending champs from Russia and Canada icing powerhouse rosters, it’ll be hard for the Czechs to fight their way to gold. They need to handle the pressure better than in 2004, where they romped through the round-robin before flopping in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Americans.
Any medal this year would be worthy of celebration. That said, reaching the semi-finals should be the minimum goal.
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