Czechs trying to rally
Czechs trying to rally
Three weak finishes in a row
Since its peaceful separation from Slovakia in 1993 (in IIHF terms), the Czech Republic has won medals more often (12) than not (11). But last year’s fourth place finish was surely disappointing given that Prague and Ostrava were co-hosts and the event shattered the all-time attendance record. Indeed, this was the third straight year the Czechs had finished off the podium (7th in 2013, 4th the last two years), but you can never discount any team from this hockey-mad, hockey-proud nation.
Right off the bat, the Czechs find themselves without a stud in goal. Pavel Francouz is 25 and has only two WM games to his credit, from 2013, when he played a grand total of just seven minutes. Dominik Furch, who just turned 26, has zero minutes of senior experience with the team, and Matej Machovsky, the baby at 22, is also without a game to his credit at the top level. One of them will have to emerge as the number-one man for the team to go deep into the playoffs.
To say the back end is young and green is being kind. The veteran on the blue line will be Michal Jordan, and “his ice-ness” will have to lead a corps that includes several players with no international experience at any level and most others with only U20 and U18 game action. Jan Kolar played at the 2014 and 2015 Worlds (with Jordan), and Petr Zamorsky played in 2014. Beyond that, it’s a steep learning curve.
There is assurance with the forwards as plenty of reputable players are in Russia to put the puck in the net. Montreal Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec leads the way. He captained the Czechs to its most recent medal, bronze in 2012, and is likely to be made captain in Moscow. He’ll be joined by Roman Cervenka, Lukas Kaspar, and David Pastrnak, the sensational 19-year-old who just completed his second season with the Boston Bruins. One of the more interesting players to follow will be Martin Zatovic. The 31-year-old played his first WM game at the 2014 Worlds and is now in his third straight tournament. The late bloomer had four goals last year.
Since 2005, the Czechs have been coached by only two men – Alois Hadamczik and Vladimir Ruzicka. But after three disappointing results, the Czechs have hired Vladimir Vujtek to try to bring a medal home. Vujtek has been coaching for more than two decades, but after starting with the Czechs’ U20 team in 1994, he has more recent experience with the Slovaks. He was their World Championship coach from 2012 to 2015, winning a silver medal in his first try, and he also led the team at the Sochi Olympics (a weak, 11th-place finish). Towards the end of his career, he is now back home.
This is certainly not a typical Czech team that can be accorded rock-star status right away. Vujtek, an older man in life, is joining the team as a rookie coach, and his system, with some scoring up front, is what will be required for success. The back end – in goal and defence both – will have to play beyond their years. A quarter-finals berth is a given, but more than that is up in the air.
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