Latvia-Czech Republic Preview

BY foxsports • February 22, 2010

Jaromir Jagr and his Czech Republic teammates are still feeling the sting of their first loss of the Vancouver Olympics, which cost the club first place in Group B and a bye through Tuesday's playoff qualifications.

Once the Czechs recover, they may see it as a blessing in disguise.

The fifth-seeded Czech Republic begins what could be a more manageable road to a possible medal Tuesday night against Latvia, which finished last among the 12 Olympic teams in the preliminary round and already lost once to the Czechs.

Russia claimed Group B and a ticket to the quarterfinals with a 4-2 win over the Czech Republic on Sunday, scoring the eventual game-winning goal early in the third period after Alex Ovechkin's jarring hit on Jagr knocked the puck loose to begin a rush.

"I made one turnover there and it cost us the game. I feel horrible," Jagr said. "I didn't see if it was an elbow or not. It doesn't really matter. It wasn't called. They got the puck, they scored. That heals, but the mistake doesn't heal."

After beating Slovakia and Latvia by a combined 8-3 margin to begin the tournament, the Czechs can still take some positives from the defeat.

They skated competitively with the favored Russians, outshooting them 20-19 in the final two periods, and Milan Michalek's goal cut their deficit to one with 5:09 left before an empty-netter sealed it for Russia.

"We played a good game," said Florida Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun, who made 27 saves. "We ended up losing. It's a tournament and you have to shake it off pretty quickly if you want to go anywhere.

"We are going to the crunch time," he added. "We didn't want to play the extra game, but we have to. We just have to refocus and we still have as good a chance as anybody."

The Czechs may have an even better chance than they expected thanks to the playoff draw, which was determined later Sunday. While they wouldn't have to play Tuesday if they had beaten Russia, they likely would have drawn the quarterfinal matchup with host Canada that the Russians are now expecting.

Instead, if the Czechs get past Latvia, they will play Finland in the quarterfinals. If they keep winning, they would not have to face any of the biggest pre-tournament favorites - Russia, Canada or Sweden - until the gold-medal game.

The Czech Republic shouldn't have much trouble beating Latvia, which lost its three preliminary games by a combined 19-4, a dismal goal differential that earned the team the lowest seed for the playoff round.

The Czechs outshot the Latvians 39-18 during a 5-2 win Friday, jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first 5:07 and cruising the rest of the way.

"Their speed, we couldn't match up," said Latvia captain Karlis Skrastins, one of two current NHL players on the team. The Czech Republic has 16.

Minnesota Wild defenseman Marek Zidlicky had three assists in that game for the Czechs, while Patrik Elias and Tomas Kaberle each added a goal and an assist.

Latvia, which also finished last at the 2006 Olympics, didn't fare any better in its final preliminary-round game, losing 6-0 to Slovakia on Saturday. Despite the failures, the underdog team still seems optimistic it can earn its first Olympic win since it beat Austria in 2002.

"We haven't upset anyone yet, so it's coming up," forward Herberts Vasiljevs said.

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