Martin Erat is lucky to be playing for the Czech Republic at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The Washington Capitals winger did not originally make the Czech roster on Jan. 6, according to Sport.cz and NBC Sports' Rotoworld.com—a fate I correctly predicted back on Dec. 1. However, Erat was added to the roster on Feb. 4 as an injury replacement for Vladimir Sobotka, according to Chris Peters of CBSSports.com.
At the time, Chris Peters wondered why Erat was chosen over more deserving candidates:
This is another curious decision by the Czech Republic, which built a roster that excluded some of the top Czech NHL players like Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata. It's especially curious that they'll replace Sobotka, a center, with a winger, while Hudler in particular could have played center. The 32-year-old Erat has 21 assists this season, while Hudler has 42 points including 14 goals. It's not all about points, but with the Czechs bringing a rather aged roster to the Winter Games, it's hard to understand why they'd pass up Hudler's scoring this year.
Peters had a point. Not only has Martin Erat been playing below the level of Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata this season, he has also been playing below the level of Martin Erat, established during his 12-year career:
Based on this decline in production, it is obvious that Erat joined the Czech national team under questionable circumstances. Nevertheless, the native of Trebic—who has made more noise this season with his trade demands and healthy scratches than with his play on the ice—has taken advantage of his opportunity with the national team.
Erat has played in all four Olympic games for the Czech Republic, who advanced to the quarterfinals to play Team USA on Feb. 19. The veteran of two previous Olympics has one goal to go with an even rating and zero penalty minutes. In four games at the Olympics, Erat has already equaled his goal-scoring output from 51 games with the Capitals.
This offensive outburst begs one question: Will the Olympics spark a second-half surge for Martin Erat?
A comparison of Erat's shots on goal for the Olympic tournament and the NHL season helps to answer that question. The following table looks at Erat's shooting percentage while also looking at his shots per game and his shots per game projected over 60 minutes of ice time:
Four of Erat's five shots at the Olympics actually came in the Czech Republic's preliminary round game versus Latvia on Feb. 14, when he scored his only goal of the tournament so far. Chase Hughes of CSNWashington.com noted that since Erat's lone goal for the Capitals this season came on an empty net, "This was the first goal he's scored on a goalie in a game since April 26, 2013 in the Capitals' win over the Toronto Maple Leafs."
After scoring a goal in his previous game, Martin Erat was held off the scoresheet against Switzerland. He saw only 9:34 of ice time and failed to record a shot on goal. Only one Czech player, Ales Hemsky, skated less in the loss.
Despite this sudden decrease in ice time, Erat was again entrusted with significant responsibility in the playoff round. Erat earned 16:08 of ice time against archrival Slovakia on Feb. 18, eighth-most among Czech forwards.
Will Olympics spark second-half surge for Martin Erat?
Erat registered a shot on goal in the second period and saw a shot hit the post in the third period, which did not register as another shot on goal. Erat also drew a penalty against Slovak captain Zdeno Chara in the second period, although the Czechs did not convert on that particular power play.
Besides simply registering more shots on goal, the second and more encouraging sign is that Erat did this while receiving less ice time than he does in Washington. At the Olympics, Erat has received almost two fewer minutes of average ice time with the Czechs than he has with the Capitals, yet has still managed to be effective offensively.
It will be interesting to see if Erat can put this restored offensive confidence to good use with the Caps. Erat himself has sensed that his performance in the Olympics can create momentum to be used upon his return to the NHL, as he told The Washington Times on Feb. 14:
I’m just trying to think of the second half of the season as a new season. Whatever happened, happened in the first half and I have to try and put it behind me. I just want to focus on new things.
Erat can "focus on new things" such as averaging more than a shot per game and scoring one goal every four games instead of one goal every 51.
That would be a step in the right direction. And for Erat, there is only one direction that this season can possibly go from here: