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World Cup of Hockey

Team Czech Republic not concerned with predictions

Goalie Michal Neuvirth, teammates out to prove doubters wrong at World Cup

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Team Czech Republic has read what's been written and heard what's been said about its chances in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 and, quite frankly, it doesn't care.

The players, coaches and management know they'll be heavy underdogs, beginning with their preliminary round opener against Team Canada at Air Canada Centre on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; ESPNEWS, SN, TVA Sports), and few are counting on them being one of the two teams to emerge from Group A that also includes Team USA and Team Europe.

"We don't care what everyone is saying," goaltender Michal Neuvirth said Thursday. "We're focusing on us, on our game. The game is not played on paper."

On paper, most project Team Canada as the favorite to win as the host nation with Team USA the other team most likely to secure one of the two semifinal berths from Group A. It would be a significant upset if Team Czech Republic or Team Europe advanced.

"Nobody is really giving us a chance to move forward from the group," captain Tomas Plekanec said. "If you look at the paper and the names that are there, you can't blame them. But we know we have a good team. We have players that have played in the NHL for a long time and have big roles and the game is played on the ice."

Video: Michal Neuvirth on Czech Republic's underdog status

All of the players on Team Czech Republic either currently play in the NHL or did previously, although it doesn't have the star power of Team Canada, which has Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty and Carey Price, to name a few. It's roster also doesn't match up with the big names on Team USA, including Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski and Ryan Suter.

It didn't help Team Czech Republic's chances that Jaromir Jagr, a longtime fixture on the national team and still one its best players at age 44, declined an invitation to play in the World Cup. Team Czech Republic's talent pool was further reduced by injuries that caused defenseman Radko Gudas and forwards David Krejci and Tomas Hertl to drop out of the tournament before training camp opened last week.

Those setbacks seem to have only strengthened Team Czech Republic's resolve.

"Obviously, we lost some key guys," general manager Martin Rucinsky said. "We put the best possible team together. We're confident in it. We know we're not the favorites here, but at the same time, hopefully, we can put up some good effort and we'll see what happens. We'll play as a group and rely on our goalies and, hopefully we can win some games."

Right wing Jakub Voracek acknowledged that "it's different" not having Jagr on the team after so many years.

"But we knew since May that he's not going to be here," Voracek said. "So we're prepared for that and I would say we've played pretty well so far."

In pretournament games, Team Czech Republic went 2-1-0 by splitting a pair of games with Team Russia and defeating Team North America. Team North America, which is comprised of players from Canada and the United States age 23 or younger, swept two pretournament games from Team Europe but lost to Team Czech Republic 3-2 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

Video: Czech Republic revving up to face a stacked Group A

"We know what we have," Voracek said. "We know nobody expected us to win any games against Russia, and I'm 100 percent positive that no one expected us to win [Wednesday]. So, we just go out there, work our [rear ends] off and play for the best."

Team Czech Republic has yet to name a starting goaltender for the game against Team Canada, but Neuvirth, 28, appears to have the inside track after making saves on 45 of 46 shots in more than 90 minutes of pretournament action. On Thursday, he sounded as if he was looking forward to getting the chance to face Team Canada with few outside Team Czech Republic's locker room believing it can win.

"I think it's the best scenario for us to play Team Canada in the first [game]," Neuvirth said. "There's going to be pressure on them. If we stick to our system and play well in our zone and stay out of the penalty box, we have a chance."

Despite what others might think.

"[Team Canada has] a great team, but I've read some things in the U.S. and Canada that we're outsiders in this tournament," Team Czech Republic forward Vladimir Sobotka said. "We know how to play hockey too and I think if we stick with our game plan, we'll be in good shape."

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