Russia-Czech Republic Preview

BY foxsports • February 20, 2010

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."


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