BRATISLAVA – Before last year’s tournament in Germany, all the talk was of Czech hockey’s decline. That changed quickly after the Czechs marched to gold. Despite a roster featuring little NHL presence, they edged an Olympic-calibre Russian team 2-1 in the final.
The Czechs may not have the depth to build another international hockey dynasty like their reign of 1998 to 2001, when they won either the Olympics or the IIHF World Championship every year. Yet with a talented veteran group here in Bratislava, including more than 15 returning players from the 2010 squad, they certainly have the potential to challenge for top spot again this year.
Tomas Vokoun, a pending unrestricted free agent after yet another season with a save percentage of more than 92.0 with the Florida Panthers, won’t be between the pipes this year after backstopping his nation to gold in both 2005 and 2010. However, his two backups from 2010 should handle the netminding duties capably.
The starter will be Roman Pavelec of the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers. Big and athletic, the 23-year-old Pavelec enjoyed a breakout season with 58 starts, a 2.73 GAA, and a .914 save percentage despite suiting up for the Eastern Conference’s weakest defensive club. Jakub Stepanek, who established himself as the top goalie for SKA St. Petersburg after Evgeni Nabokov’s KHL foray didn’t pan out, should also see some action after serving as the third goalie in 2010.
While injuries limited Minnesota Wild blueliner Marek Zidlicky to 46 games this year, the 34-year-old veteran still managed seven goals, the third-highest total of his NHL career, and 17 assists. He’ll be expected to quarterback the Czech power play, along with Karel Rachunek, the KHL’s leading point-getter among defencemen during both the regular season and playoffs with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Don’t expect a ton of bone-crunching bodychecks from this group, but even ex-NHL depth D-men like Martin Skoula and Lukas Krajicek bring enough puck-moving savvy that the Czechs should be just fine in their own zone.
The great Jaromir Jagr, an IIHF Triple Gold Club member since 2005, is coming off another productive campaign (19-32-51) with the KHL’s Avangard Omsk at age 39. He has excellent chemistry with shifty linemate Roman Cerevenka, who topped the KHL goal-scoring derby with 31 tallies. The duo shone during the just-completed Czech Hockey Games in Brno, combining for 11 points in three games en route to first place in the four-nation tournament.
Veteran left wing Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils will deliver leadership and be eager for some redemption after missing the playoffs for the first time in his NHL career. Martin Havlat, the Minnesota Wild’s leading scorer with 62 points, should add an element of flash and dash, although he’s goalless in his last eight IIHF games. Expect good secondary scoring and defensive awareness from KHL forwards like Jiri Novotny (Barys Astana) and Tomas Rolinek (Metallurg Magnitogorsk). Overall, it’s a well-balanced set of attackers.
It may seem strange that Vladimir Ruzicka, the architect of the last two Czech gold medals in 2005 and 2010, isn’t back behind the bench seeking a repeat. But the plan was for him to renew his focus on his club team, Slavia Praha, stepping away from the national side and handing the reins back to his longtime rival, Alois Hadamczik. And that’s what’s transpired.
The 59-year-old Hadamczik has something to prove this year. In 2006, Hadamczik led the Czechs to bronze at the Olympics and silver at the Worlds before going into steep decline, including a seventh place finish in Russia 2007 and fifth place in Canada 2008. He’ll implement a strict counterattacking Czech system, and hope that a ramped-up blueline corps can compensate for a loss of some experience in goal.
Thanks to the 2010 gold medal, the Czech Republic has got its swagger back again. Playing in neighbouring Slovakia should also provide a comfortable, familiar environment with plenty of fan support. It would be particularly sweet to succeed in the land of "Little Brother". On paper, the Czechs look well-positioned to finish first in Group D over Finland. And when the semi-finals roll around, it would be no surprise to see the Czechs right there with the Russians and Canadians. A medal is eminently possible.