Russia-Czech Republic Preview

Four years ago in Turin, the Czech Republic tapped Tomas Vokoun

to face Russia for the bronze medal, and he delivered a

shutout.

Vokoun is expected to start again against the Russians on Sunday

when he will try to recapture that magic while looking to lead his

team to the Group B championship.

The Czech Republic’s medal chances seemed to take a big hit in

2006 when Dominik Hasek – who led the country to gold with a

shutout win over Russia in 1998 – suffered a leg injury in the

first game. Vokoun tried to take the future NHL Hall of Famer’s

place in the preliminary round but posted a 2.98 goals-against

average while losing three of five.

The Czechs then turned to Milan Hnilicka in the quarterfinals,

and he helped them top previously unbeaten Slovakia but was pulled

from a 7-3 semifinal loss to Sweden.

That left the country looking back to Vokoun, and he stopped 28

shots in a 3-0 victory for the medal. Vokoun made 12 saves in the

final period against a Russian team desperate to atone for another

disappointing Olympic defeat.

Vokoun, currently with the Florida Panthers, has seemed to pick

up in Vancouver where he left off, as the Czechs have outscored

their first two opponents 8-3. Following a 5-2 win Friday over

Latvia, the Czechs survived a 12-2 shots disadvantage in the third

period of Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Slovakia.

Jaromir Jagr has given the Czech Republic another boost with a

goal in each win, and that has the 38-year-old forward

contemplating a return to the NHL. Patrik Elias of the New Jersey

Devils and Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens have also

scored twice.

First, Jagr would like to help his country earn a crucial bye

ahead of the quarterfinals.

“It’s going to be special because they’re one of the favorites,”

he said of Russia, where he currently plays in the KHL. “Sometimes

you want easy games. But once you retire, you’re going to remember

those games and moments.

“That’s why I want to play Russia and hopefully play Canada in

Canada. That would be something special for me.”

The Russians, meanwhile, seem stuck in an all-too-familiar

pattern and will try to break that with a victory over one of their

rivals.

Like these games, they entered Turin among the gold medal

favorites thanks to a roster that’s a virtual NHL All-Star team.

That run in 2006 began on a bad omen with a preliminary-round

defeat to Slovakia.

Russia fell again to the Slovaks 2-1 in a shootout Thursday.

Reigning two-time NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin was given three chances to

help his team to victory in the tiebreaker, but could only convert

one.

“It’s always tough to lose, but it’s good to have it happen now

in the tournament,” he said.

The Soviet Union won seven of nine Olympic titles from 1956 to

1988, but Russia hasn’t climbed to the top of the medal stand since

the Unified Team did so in 1992.

The Russians still have a shot at one of the four quarterfinal

berths. To earn one of those coveted byes, they likely need a

regulation win over their rivals and possibly some help.

To aid that effort, coach Vyacheslav Bykov seems ready to make a

change on his top line. Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins

could replace the Detroit Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk at center with

Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals teammate, Alexander Semin, at

the wings.

If that change occurs, Datsyuk will likely play with Ilya

Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils and Maxim Afinogenov of the

Atlanta Thrashers.

Bykov is also expected to start the San Jose Sharks’ Evgeni

Nabokov, who made 18 saves Tuesday in an 8-2 rout of Latvia.

Nabokov is fifth in the NHL this season with a 2.26

goals-against average, six spots ahead of Vokoun (2.36). Vokoun,

however, is tied for the league lead with seven shutouts.

Russia is also expected to have Sergei Fedorov available for

Sunday’s game. The 40-year-old forward, who had two assists against

Latvia, missed Friday’s practice with an undisclosed injury.

Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar said Fedorov will play “for

sure.”