The Czech hockey team is gearing up for the Ice Hockey World Championship in Germany, departing for Mannheim on Friday. A day earlier the team dispatched Belarus in a final warm-up match 5-2. What will it take for the Czechs to do well in Germany, after a disappointing finish earlier this year at the Vancouver Olympics? We look at a number of key factors.
For one, the Czechs will have to gel as a team and take their cue, many observers are pointing out, from two of the team’s key figures: one is the legendary forward Jaromír Jágr who – at 38 – is still playing well and has much needed experience, an inspiration for a team otherwise featuring many new names.
Jágr can still turn around a game in the clutch, as we saw in Vancouver, and will be key on the power play although that will also make him vulnerable: many remember the devastating hit he took from Ovechkin in the Czech’s game against Russia at the Olympics, which completely swung the momentum. Jágr has come back to the national team at a time when many other star players were unable or declined and is hoping to nab a medal finish.
For the Czechs to do well in Germany, the players will also have to rally around Tomáš Vokoun, the NHL goalie who was one of the few Czechs who really shined at Vancouver. In the final pre-Championship match he let in a soft goal against Belarus, but otherwise appeared solid. At the top of his game, Vokoun can stop the best of them, and at 33 he also has plenty of experience, knowing how to handle big games. Obviously, if both do well, the team as a whole will benefit.
Another player to watch will be the up-and-coming forward Jakub Voráček, who plays in the NHL for Columbus. The 20-year-old shone on Thursday earning three assists. He is fast, reliable, and after Jágr, probably the Czechs’ biggest offensive ace. Another important addition is forward Petr Koukal, whose Pardubice are the fresh Czech league champions.
After that, much will depend on the solidness of the defence, leaving including Michal Rozsíval, of the New York Rangers or Michal Barinka, who plays for Vítkovice. They, and fellow players will have to communicate well with Vokoun, to pick up loose pucks and clear rebounds when necessary.
As for opening challenges? The Czechs, in Group C, will first face France,
then Norway – widely seen as compulsory wins - in the group stage and
their first real test will come next Thursday, when they face the
traditional powerhouse Swedes. Overall, in the tournament, bookies are, not
surprisingly naming Russia and Canada as the two toughest teams to beat.
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