Sochi 2014: Czech Republic Olympic Team Review
EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of RotoWire’s Olympic Preview for the 22nd Winter Olympiad, we have asked six of our hockey writers to review each team in depth to analyze each team’s strengths and weaknesses, and what they think their chances are for winning the Olympic gold. Make sure you check in each day this week for a new team preview.
While they may not be in the same strata as some of the other Olympic rosters, the Czech contingent has some very capable athletes up the middle. The foursome of David Krejci, Martin Hanzal, Tomas Plekanec and Patrik Elias should give their opponents a difficult time in both ends of the ice. All four have played a significant number of games internationally, so there’s little mystery there – they’ll adjust nicely to the extra space, and have the necessary speed to take advantage of it. The problem, however, is that they don’t appear elite enough to be able to swing with the big boys. It is not enough to simply be good at the Olympics; the lineups look like all-star rosters. The winning team must be phenomenal, and sadly, this group is not.
To go along with their above-average group of centers, the Czechs have an equally skilled roster of hard-working, skilled forwards. The top line wingers for this group will likely be Milan Michalek and Jakub Voracek – two elite power forwards that should be able to swing with the best of the other teams. Past these top two, though, things get dicey. Jaromir Jagr is still a threat on most nights in the NHL, but at 41, his best years are behind him, and his speed has noticeably fallen off. Petr Nedved, who just turned 42, hasn’t played in the Olympics in 20 years and was clearly showing his age in 2006. Add to those question marks, players who couldn’t really cut it in the NHL like Roman Cervenka and Jiri Novotny, and you have a gaping hole at the bottom of the forward line. The elite level teams like Canada, Sweden, Russia, and the US will have a field day with the fourth line, and should be able to pick them apart with both speed and skill.
Looking through the Czech defense gives me an empathetic sense of doom. This squad of eight are nowhere near good enough to be facing off against the world’s best - so much so that I have a hard time figuring out who will even be the top pairing. My guess is that Marek Zidlicky and Zbynek Michalek will be chewing up the top minutes, with Radko Gudas and Michal Rozsival on the second pair. Michal Barinka, Tomas Kaberle, and Lukas Krajicek should all see minimal ice time, as none of them have the speed to keep up with the pace of the game that other teams will push.
It’s expected that the starter for the Czech team will be Ondrej Pavelec, the Winnipeg Jets’ starting netminder. With numbers this year of 2.97 GAA / .902 SV% against NHL teams, it’s not hard to see that the most glaring fault with this team will be their last line of defense. Alexander Salak has fared much better this year in the KHL, posting a 1.86 GAA / .933 SV%, but then again, the level of competition will be much higher. The third string goalie, Jakub Kovar, has done slightly better than Salak in the KHL with a 1.91 GAA / .934 SV%, but is unlikely to get much ice time, unless the prior two get lit up.
The Czechs have put together a solid team, and if this were the NHL, they would likely be among the better teams. The problem is that it’s most definitely not; this is the Olympics. This is where only the best come to compete, and unfortunately for the Czech nationals cheering for their squad this year, their best is simply not up to snuff. Their inclusion in the weak Group C is to their benefit – they’ll finish second behind Sweden, win their qualification game against Slovenia, then lose in the quarterfinals against a far superior Canadian contingent.