We are only 13 days away from the beginning date of the Winter Olympic ice hockey preliminaries! Which certainly means it's time to look at the strength of schedules/groupings for your native team but obviously with a stressed interest in the Czech club in this particular article.
First off, here's how the Olympics work for ice hockey: There are 12 teams divided into three groups, with four teams in each group. In the preliminary round, each team plays the other three teams in their group once. After this round, all 12 teams are ranked anywhere from one to 12. The top four teams get first round byes, while five through 12 face each other in a playoff format (ie. five plays 12, six plays 11, etc.). Don't worry, I'm just learning about these things myself, too. I was only 16 the last time Olympic hockey was played, and for some reason I didn't care much for it. Now, I can barely wait.
After these games, only eight teams will remain, and the number one seed will play the lowest remaining seed, along with the number two seed playing the second lowest remaining seed, so on and so forth. The four teams remaining will play (highest vs. lowest, second highest vs. second lowest), with those two winners playing for the gold medal. The losers of both of those games play for the bronze, while the loser of the final automatically wins the silver medal.
Let's take a look at the Czech Republic's group this time around (Group B):
Latvia—Never medaled, finished last in Olympics in 2006. If you've heard of anyone on this team besides Karlis Skrastins, let me know, because you'll be a more intelligent hockey fan than I.
Russia—Since 1994, won silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002 and finished fourth in Olympics in 2006. One of the main frontrunners in the Olympics this year, and if you look at this stacked roster you'll understand why. Yikes.
Slovakia—Never medaled, finished fifth in the 2006 Olympics. Has some decent talent, including some top-flight NHLers such as Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa, but not enough to seriously make a run.
On paper, Russia is clearly the most talented team in this group. It's a relatively close call for second between the Czech team and the Slovakian team, but I think the abundance of playmakers on the Czech team is a good thing and makes their offense better, and therefore I pick them. Third would be Slovakia, which makes the least talented team Latvia.
It's fair to say it's extremely realistic to expect the Czech team to go 2-1 over the three game preliminary round (don't see Latvia or Slovakia beating them, although upsets are always possible). But here's where it gets tricky: they play Russia last. It'd be a huge blow of confidence and team morale to go into the game against Russia with a loss already on your record against a team that is of far less superiority than the Russians, making the first couple of games extremely vital to how the Czechs will do overall in the Winter Games.
It's very important that the Czechs grab those two early victories. If you're not beating Latvia in the prelims, you can't expect to beat Russia them either, and you especially can't expect to win the important games that offer medals as a reward for the victorious.
As uplifting as a win over the Russians would be, it would be just as deflating to lose to Norway or Slovakia. It's tempting to admit the two games against Norway and Slovakia are more important than the game against Russia, because before you can beat the absolute best, you need to be able to beat the teams that just aren't as talented. Just like you need to learn to walk before you can run.
Not too much to look over and predict, but these three games will set the tone for the whole Olympics. Needless to say, it'd be absolutely huge if the Czechs could pull a victory over the Russians and get some kind of standing position over them during the tournament portion of the Winter Games.
Overall, the Czechs lucked out a little bit with their draw in this group. They have one powerhouse team that they'll be able to measure themselves against when they play the Russians on the 21st of February and two other teams that are quite beatable and could help fatten the Czech's record up in order to give them a higher seed when the actual Olympic tournament rolls around. But all of this talk is merely just that: talk. Once the puck drops, all predictions, odds, and bets are off.