BY: ROB ELBAZ
The Czechs currently hold third place in the IIHF world rankings but they’ll be hard pressed to medal in Sochi. They are a far cry from the team that took the Gold back from Nagano in ’98 or even the Bronze from Turin in 2006, and they’ll be facing stiff competition from host nation Russia, along with Canada, the US, Sweden and Slovakia.
While not a powerhouse, the team does have some offensive talent and should still put on a show for the fans. They’ll also boast some quality goaltending from a trio of capable backstops, any one of which can lead this team deep into the tourney. The Czechs also managed a favorable draw, avoiding many of the elite teams in this tournament for the preliminary round.
Team Czech will bring some big offensive names to Sochi, but unfortunately, their most talented players may have their best days behind them. Jaromir Jagr will be turning 42 during the Olympics, he and Patrik Elias, 37, will likely be playing in their last Olympic tournaments.
Look for Jagr to be reunited on a line with Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec, the two played their lockout hockey together in Kladno for the team that Jagr owns. Despite the chemistry that Jagr and Plekanec always seem to find, David Krejci might be the Czech Republic’s biggest offensive threat, he led the NHL in playoff scoring in 2013 with 26 points in 22 games. The Czechs will also have Jakub Voracek of Philadelphia, Ottawa’s Milan Michalek, and Washington’s Tomas Fleischmann to help provide a scoring touch.
Offensively speaking, Team Czech should be able to hold their own. While they should be able to light the lamp consistently, but even so, they will have difficulty keeping pace with the forwards that Canada, Russia and the USA will be bringing to Sochi. If they are lucky, the Czechs will be on par with the offense that Sweden and Slovakia will have at the Olympics. At worst the Czechs’ forward lineup will still match up with Finland.
At the other end of the ice, it will be interesting to see who earns the starting goalie spot for Team Czech. Thomas Vokoun backstopped the team to Bronze in ’06 and held onto starting duties in 2010, but Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec could be set to replace the veteran netminder. Michal Neuvirth will also enter the goaltending conversation, giving the Czech Republic three viable options in goal, although none will offer the type of dominance Dominik Hasek gave the Czechs in ’98.
Having three capable goalies could be a big boost to the Czech team. If any of the trio gets hot during the tourney the Czechs will be a legitimate medal contender, but with just three round-robin games before the single elimination round, finding the best man for the job could be a tough task.
Defense is where the Czechs will have the most trouble keeping up with the rest of the competition. The good news is that they will have plenty of quality choices for dependable blueliners with the likes of Stanley Cup winner Michal Rozsival, Florida’s Filip Kuba, Detroit’s Jakub Kindl, Jersey’s Marek Zidlicky, Ladislav Smid from the Oilers, Zbynek Michalek and Rostislav Klesla from the Coyotes, and former Habs Tomas Kaberle and Roman Hamrlik to choose from. The bad news is that the team won’t have the type of standout defenseman that some of other teams will be bringing. There is no Zdeno Chara, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter or P.K. Subban that can eat up minutes and dominate play in all three zones. Instead the team will need to rely on veteran leadership and balanced defending to lead the team deeper in the tourney.
Behind the bench, Alois Hadamczik will be back to coach the national team. While Hadamczik has never coached in the NHL, he led the Czech’s to a bronze medal in the 2006 games and should have no trouble getting the most out of his squad.
The Czechs earned a good draw in Sochi. They are lucky enough to have Switzerland and Latvia in their group, which should allow them to easily advance past the round-robin. They also share the group with Sweden, a talented team but one that they may be able to defeat and potentially earn a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
With Team USA, Team Russia and Team Slovakia sharing a group, it’s clear the Czechs have already cleared a major hurdle in their path to the medals. If they can manage to go undefeated in the preliminary round they could keep rolling right through to a semi-final appearance and a chance at a medal. Still, lots of things will need to go right for the Czechs if a Gold or even Silver is in their future.