Men's scouting reports (cont.)
STORYLINE: The fortunes of the Czech hockey squad are as predictable as the quality of Kansas City sushi. Expect to be disappointed and you might be surprised. Or not. The challenge for Vladimir Rucizka's squad will be to start pulling in the same direction from the opener. Too often, the Czechs have seemed at cross purposes, skating without the cohesion it takes to carry one of these events. If Rucizka can keep them focused, they'll be in the mix. The Czechs also caught a break this week when captain Patrik Elias returned from a concussion that cost him 10 games and threatened his participation.
MVP: Tomas Vokoun. The Czechs skated away with a bronze from Turin thanks largely to Vokoun's 28-save shutout performance against the Russians in the consolation match. He'll need to be better than his overall 3-4 record if his team hopes to qualify for the medal round. This time he's coming in with the knowledge that he's the starter (he replaced the injured Dominik Hasek in the 2006 opener) and he's coming in hot. Vokoun has allowed two or fewer goals in 12 of his last 18 NHL starts and was spectacular in January, posting four shutouts to go along with a 1.49 GAA and .956 save percentage.
KEEP AN EYE ON: David Krejci. Returning sooner than expected from summer hip surgery slowed him down in the early NHL going, but the Bruins' sublime playmaker seems to have regained his form over the past few games. He could center the second line between Jaromir Jagr and Tomas Fleischmann, clearly the best wingers he's had the chance to play with.
QUESTION MARK: Jaromir Jagr. At 37, he's no longer the kinetic force he was back when the Czechs took gold in Nagano (1998), or when he was the NHL's MVP in 1999. Still, there are more than a few general managers who think he has something to contribute, and word is he's willing to leave Omsk if the right NHL opportunity comes along. As important as he is to this team over the next two weeks, it'll be hard not to couch his performance in terms of his future.
BOTTOM LINE: There's a youthful element to this team (Fleischmann, Martin Erat, Roman Polak), but make no mistake: the Czechs are bringing one of the most experienced groups to Vancouver. They've won this tournament before and were world champs as recently as 2005. They're expecting to medal and a silver or bronze should surprise no one.
STORYLINE: The most stunning exit from the Turin Games was not by the underperforming Canadians or Americans, but by the Slovaks, who started the tournament 5-0 (including wins over the Russians and Swedes) only to be broomed out of medal contention after a single loss to the hated Czechs. That painful memory should provide sufficient motivation to improve their fate this time around, but the talent might not match the heart.
Slovakia boasts some explosive scoring talent in Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa, but many of their key forwards (Jozef Stumpel, Ziggy Palffy, Miroslav Satan, Richar Zednik) are edging into obsolescence. Gaborik is nursing a knee injury and pulled himself from the Rangers' game against Pittsburgh after four minutes on Friday night. If he can't go, Marek Svatos of the Avalanche will be a likely replacement. The defense corps boasts last season's Norris Trophy-winner (and perennial candidate) Zdeno Chara and gifted puck-mover Lubomir Visnovsky, but the depth fades quickly after the top pairing. Get 'em on their heels early, and they'll pack up the tents.
MVP: Marian Hossa. The Blackhawks winger is a dandy two-way threat in the NHL, but Hossa seems to save his best hockey for his homeland. He's been an impact player at the last two Olympiads, finishing among the top-five scorers each time.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jaroslav Halak. Goaltending's been the one area where the Slovaks have fallen short in previous best-on-best competitions, but Halak could be the difference-maker they've lacked. Though he's yet to establish himself as one of the game's top stoppers, he has wrested the top job in Montreal from golden boy Carey Price.
QUESTION MARK: Pavol Demitra. The team's best playmaker, it'll be up to Demitra to move the puck to finishers Gaborik and Hossa. The question is: will he be healthy enough? The veteran forward saw his first action of the NHL season in mid-January and is still working the rust off his blades. The surgically repaired shoulder has held up so far, but he hasn't yet re-established his game.
BOTTOM LINE: Realistically, this is a sixth-place club, but it has enough pieces in place to upset any team in this tournament. With some hot goaltending and a break or two, the Slovaks could even sneak into the medal round. Could...but won't.