Czech Republic-Slovakia Preview
Four years ago, the Czech Republic ended upstart Slovakia's dream of getting its first Olympic medal in hockey. Injuries to several key offensive threats may keep the Slovakians from getting a measure of revenge on their neighboring rivals when they meet Wednesday night in Vancouver.
Slovakia, ranked 10th by the IIHF for this tournament, surprisingly won its first five games at the 2006 Olympics in a group that included the United States, Russia and Sweden - the eventual gold-medal winner. Any hope of winning its first medal since the nation gained its independence from Czechoslovakia in 1993, however, came to an end with a 3-1 quarterfinal loss to the Czech Republic.
Now, Slovakia will try to start another run against the Czechs, but that may be a tall task with Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa and Miroslav Satan hampered by injuries that forced them out of their final NHL games over the weekend.
The biggest concern might be Gaborik, who didn't practice Monday and is still recovering from a deep cut on his thigh after a collision in practice last week with New York Rangers teammate - and Sweden's No. 1 goalie - Henrik Lundqvist. Gaborik missed two of New York's last three games and played only four minutes in the other.
"Gabby just needs time," said Slovakian teammate and Canucks center Pavol Demitra. "Hopefully, he's going to feel better and start the first game. Every single game is very important to grab points, especially against the Czech Republic, always a huge rivalry."
Gaborik leads the Rangers with 35 goals and 69 points. The right wing had three goals and four assists at the 2006 Turin Games, while Hossa led the team with five of each.
Hossa's status is also in question. The right wing, who has 17 goals and 17 assists in his first season with Chicago, needs medical clearance after a hard hit knocked him out of the Blackhawks' game Saturday and forced him to sit out Sunday's game.
"I felt a little but blurry, but I remember everything that happened and went back to the dressing room on my own legs," Hossa said. "There was no heavy headaches, no throwing up."
Satan, who has three goals and six points in 18 games after signing with Boston last month, is nursing a hand injury that forced him to miss Saturday's game for the Bruins. The right wing practiced Monday, but his hand was heavily bandaged.
While Slovakia's offensive options might be dwindling, the Czech Republic - No. 6 in the IIHF rankings - will rely on a veteran group of forwards led by 38-year-old Jaromir Jagr.
Jagr, who led the Czechs to the gold medal in 1998 and the bronze in 2006, returns to North America for the first time in nearly two years after signing a two-year contract worth about $7 million tax-free to play for Avangard Omsk of the Russian Kontinental Hockey League.
The right wing, who has 95 points in 104 games in two seasons in Russia, ranks ninth on the NHL's all-time list with 1,599 points (646 goals, 953 assists) in 1,273 games split between Pittsburgh, Washington and the Rangers.
"If you have any respect for the game, you have to respect people like him," goaltender Tomas Vokoun said. "I think everyone in that dressing room respects him and knows what he's done. He's someone very special."
Vokoun enters this tournament as the Czech Republic's No. 1 netminder after taking over for an injured Dominik Hasek during the 2006 Olympics, going 3-4 with a 2.46 goals-against average. He also was a major part of the Czechs' run to gold at the 2005 World Championships with a 7-1 record and a 1.08 GAA.
Vokoun is 19-21-10 with a 2.36 GAA for Florida this season, while his career-high seven shutouts are tied with New Jersey's Martin Brodeur for the league lead.
Slovakia is expected to have Jaroslav Halak in net for his Olympic debut. He's emerged as a solid contributor for Montreal, going 17-10-2 with a 2.46 GAA.
Slovakia and the Czech Republic have split two meetings in the World Championships since the last Olympics. However, the Czechs won the last matchup 8-0 in last year's tournament behind two goals from Jagr.
The Czech Republic, though, hasn't reached the podium since winning the silver at the '06 World Championships, while Slovakia has finished 10th at the last two.