Czech Republic-Latvia Preview
The Czech Republic came into the Olympics knowing it would have difficulty contending for a medal without some major contributions from its oldest player.
Jaromir Jagr certainly didn't look like a 38-year-old in its opener.
Jagr was the spark that carried the Czechs to victory in their first game, and he'll get another good opportunity to shine Friday night against a Latvia team that was overmatched in its debut in Vancouver.
Jagr has won five NHL scoring titles and two Stanley Cups, but he's been gone from the NHL stage for two years now, playing in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.
Neither that, nor his aging legs, seemed to slow him Wednesday against rival Slovakia. Jagr, who turned 38 a day earlier, scored once and assisted on another goal in the second period to help lift the Czech Republic to a 3-1 victory.
"Every team is going to have to give him respect because he can make you look bad," defenseman Tomas Kaberle of the Toronto Maple Leafs said. "He's our best forward and it showed. He's so strong on the puck and he's got such a quick release and he's got such strong legs, when he has a step on you you're not going to catch him."
Forward Tomas Fleischmann, who plays with superstar Alex Ovechkin in Washington, made Jagr's impact sound relatively simple.
"He was the difference between our winning and losing," Fleischmann said. "You could see it. He was responsible for two goals. The game seemed to come to him."
Jagr also had to readjust to the NHL-sized ice surface after playing on the larger international surface in Russia, and said that's more of an ongoing process despite his stellar first game.
"Hopefully, I'm going to get better," Jagr said. "It was tough for me. For two years, I didn't play on smaller ice. In the first period, bodies were flying everywhere."
The Czechs weren't without issues in the opener. Slovakia outshot them 35-24, forcing goaltender Tomas Vokoun of the Florida Panthers to continually make big saves.
They also failed to convert on 5 of 6 power plays, getting on the board only when the Montreal Canadiens' Tomas Plekanec found the back of the net with two seconds left in the second period off an assist by Jagr.
Captain Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils, who was limited to just one game due to injury as his team won bronze in Turin in 2006, scored in the first period.
The Czechs' biggest concern Friday will be guarding against a letdown. After getting acclimated to the Canada Hockey Place rink and earning three points Wednesday, plenty of eyes will be looking ahead to Sunday's showdown with bitter rival Russia - a game that likely will decide the Group B winner.
Latvia, on the other hand, finished last in Turin and didn't look capable of much more based on its opening performance. Russia raced out to a 3-0 lead and outshot Latvia 45-20 Tuesday on its way to an 8-2 rout.
"First 10 minutes, we were waiting and watching what they are doing and we were flat," said Dallas Stars defenseman Karlis Skrastins, one of two NHL players on the roster. "After that we picked up our game, started moving, started skating and then we started getting some chances."
Latvia did bring a lively contingent of fans to Vancouver, one that erupted 33 seconds into the third period when Herberts Vasiljevs beat Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks. Girts Ankipans scored Latvia's other goal.
Though Latvia struggled to stay close 5 on 5, it did shut down the Russians on their first five power-play opportunities behind goaltender Edgars Masalskis.