With all the talk about the U.S., Canadian, and Russian squads, you might be surprised to find there are nine other teams in the 2010 Olympic men’s hockey tournament.
That’s just fine with the Czech Republic. They’ve made a habit of thriving as the underdog. In 1998, they beat a highly favored Russian team to win gold in Nagano. They surprised the world in 2006, earning a bronze medal in Torino.
The Czech’s strength, by far, is their skill at forward: two lines that boast the likes of Thomas Plekanec, Milan Michalek, David Krejci, Martin Havlat, Patrik Elias, and Jaromir Jagr. Lines featuring those names will give any country’s defense headaches.
Coach Vladimir Ruzicka has two options concerning his top six forwards: Put them together to form two extremely potent scoring lines, or break them up and spread out the offensive threats to keep the opposition guessing. The combination of playmaking ability and scoring touch these six forwards provide needs to carry this team if the Czechs hope to reach the medal rounds.
Goaltending is solid as well. Thomas Vokoun backstopped the team to the bronze medal in 2006, and has the most Olympic experience in net.
Expected backup Ondrej Pavelec has turned in a good season in Atlanta thus far, but probably won’t see much time outside of a blowout or freak injury to Vokoun.
Goaltender Jakub Stepanek is an unknown entity. He hasn’t had the benefit of facing elite forwards on a nightly basis as Vokoun and Pavelec have in the NHL. He likely won’t see any actual game time, but should that freak injury occur, he may be called upon.
The primary concern for the Czech team is on the blue line. While they have plenty of offensively talented players (Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, and Marek Zidlicky), the presence of a bonafide shut down D-man just isn’t there.
Defending the front of the net won’t be a problem. Zidlicky, Kubina, Roman Polak and Jan Hejda all go over 6’3” and 225 pounds. Even Tomas Holmstrom would have issues staying in front of Vokoun with those defenders on his back.
Where the Czechs might run into problems is trying to defend teams on the fly. Fellow Group B member Russia is boasting a lineup with names like Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, and Malkin—not exactly the kind of players that sit in front of the net and screen a goaltender. The Czechs might have problems keeping the Russian forwards in front of them.
Not that Vokoun isn’t used to a heavy workload. He’s faced an average of 33 shots per game in Florida this season, all while keeping a tidy 2.35 goals against average.
The other two teams in the group, Slovakia and Latvia, feature very little top-level NHL talent, and will struggle to get out of the group stage. While they are solidly built, their rosters just don’t measure up when compared to Russia and the Czech Republic. For the Czechs, coming out of group play with a 2-1 record and a first round bye won’t be easy, but should be an attainable goal.
If everything works out as expected (but honestly, when does it ever, really?), the Czechs would run into the US in the quarter finals.
Against teams like Russia and the US, the Czechs’ defense will be under more pressure, and will have to lean on Vokoun more than usual if they hope to get into medal contention.
The Czechs have the kind of lineup that is certainly capable of claiming another medal. Russia, Canada, Sweden: Consider yourself warned.