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World Cup of Hockey

Underdog Team Czech Republic aims for upset

Must overcome injuries, lack of depth to advance to World Cup semifinals

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / Director of Editorial

PRAGUE -- Team Czech Republic knows the odds are stacked against it at the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

With a talent base lagging behind some of the other teams in this tournament, Team Czech Republic was further hindered when some key players were lost to injury. Center David Krejci, forward Tomas Hertl and defenseman Radko Gudas each withdrew during the past month.

However, Team Czech Republic refuses to wallow in self-pity. It's relishing its role as an underdog in Group A, which also includes tournament favorite Team Canada, Team USA and Team Europe.

Team Czech Republic plays its first tournament game against Team Canada at Air Canada Centre on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; ESPNEWS, SN, TVA Sports).

"The team looks pretty good," assistant coach Jaroslav Spacek said. "We are pushing the pace. We've had all the meetings. Obviously, we don't have as many players as USA, Canada and other teams; but we'll do our best with the guys we have and we trust them. They trust us, and we trust them. We have to bring the best from them, and they want to see the best from us."

If Team Czech Republic does bring its best, there is a belief within the locker room that it can spring an upset or two, which would be all that is necessary in the short-tournament format of the World Cup.

"It evens up a little bit," general manager Martin Rucinsky said, referencing the three-game group stage and the one-game semifinal format. "You don't play a best-of-7 with anybody; you play only one game, so it's like when you play Game 7; anything can happen. You can look at it as a Game 7 because it's only one game and anything can happen. That's our advantage; teams like us, underdogs, we just have to give it our best shot and see what happens."

The World Cup final is a best-of-3 series.

Here is a look at Team Czech Republic heading into the tournament:

Video: CZE@NAT: Plekanec finishes from tough angle for lead


Despite the loss of Krejci and Hertl to injury, Team Czech Republic believes it has a deep group of forwards.

Captain Tomas Plekanec is the leader. He holds the other forwards together through his play on the ice and his determination to make things happen around the opposition's net.

Plekanec scored a goal in each of Team Czech Republic's three pretournament games. The second one, on a deflection against Team Russia on Sept. 10, came with 71 seconds remaining and rescued Team Czech Republic from a 1-0 loss. Instead, it won 2-1 in the shootout.

"He's our captain, our leader," forward Milan Michalek said. "That's what he does. It's huge for us."

Center Martin Hanzal is another net-front presence who will be key for Team Czech Republic. Reprising the role he's played for the Arizona Coyotes for much of the past decade, Hanzal (6-foot-6, 226 pounds) will station himself within a foot of the crease, particularly on the power play.

But the success of this group could rest with the health of Vladimir Sobotka, who has been slowed by a shoulder injury sustained in a pretournament game against Team Russia on Sept. 8. Sobotka, who had four goals in the 2015 IIHF World Championship, said he is close to 100 percent, but he has not played for the past week, including Team Czech Republic's 3-2 win against Team North America in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

Team Czech Republic features several veterans who can play at each end of the ice, but it lacks a game-breaking scorer. Michalek, Ales Hemsky, Jakub Voracek, Ondrej Palat and Michael Frolik all will be counted on to contribute offensively.


This group will make or break Team Czech Republic's efforts to surprise teams in the group stage. It lacks depth and has several players who are untested at this level.

Roman Polak, a third-pair defenseman for the San Jose Sharks during their run to the Stanley Cup Final last season, will be a top-two defenseman for Team Czech Republic. He is a physical presence, but the speed of some of the forwards in this tournament may give him pause, much as it did against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Cup Final.

"He's the heart and soul," Rucinsky said. "He plays hard, blocks shots, he's a difficult player to play against. With our situation in Czech hockey, he's an easy choice."

Zbynek Michalek and Andrej Sustr are the other NHL-tested defensemen on this roster. After that, depth is a question mark.

Michal Kempny, who is staying in North America after the tournament in an attempt to make the Chicago Blackhawks after being signed as a free agent, has been very good in the pretournament games. Jakub Nakladal, an unrestricted free agent who played 27 games with the Calgary Flames in 2015-16, also has been strong so far.

Michal Kundratek and Michal Jordan are the other defensemen.

Video: CZE@NAT: Mrazek stops Gaudreau on the break


Team Czech Republic has yet to choose its No. 1 goalie. The battle continues between Petr Mrazek of the Detroit Red Wings and Michal Neuvirth of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Mrazek allowed four goals on 28 shots in a 4-3 loss to Team Russia in St. Petersburg on Sept. 8. Neuvirth, in his first start with the national team, made saves on 20 of 21 shots and two of three shootout attempts in the 2-1 victory against Team Russia in Prague on Sept. 10.

In the 3-2 win against Team North America on Wednesday, Neuvirth made saves on all 25 shots he faced in 30:15, and Mrazek made 17 saves on 19 shots.

Neuvirth, 28, likely played himself into the conversation with his strong showing in Prague.

"We may have had the No. 1 goalie before, but now we have two good goalies," Spacek said.

Ondrej Pavelec, the third goalie on the roster, did not play in the pretournament games.

Special teams

Team Czech Republic will need to win the battle of special teams to have a chance to advance. Its penalty-killing units were strong in the three pretournament games, going 13-for-15 (86.7 percent).

Team Czech Republic relies on a variety of penalty-killers. Defensemen Zbynek Michalek, Kempny, Nakladal, Kundratek and Sustr each see considerable time in shorthanded situations. Up front, it uses Milan Michalek, Hanzal, Radek Faksa, Plekanec and Frolik.

On the power play, Hanzal, Plekanec, Palat, Frolik, Hemsky, David Pastrnak and Jakub Voracek have been on the two primary forward lines. Kempny, who had three points (one goal, two assists) in the three pretournament games, and Nakladal primarily have been the defensemen used at the point.


Josef Jandac, 47, is coaching in his first best-on-best international tournament. He took over the Czech team after Vladimir Vujtek retired after the 2016 World Championship in Russia.

However, Jandac has plenty of experience with the national team. He served as an assistant under Vujtek and also under Vladimir Ruzicka, beginning in 2008. He was on the staff that helped the Czech Republic win the gold medal at the 2010 World Championship.

Jandac has surrounded himself with assistants who have extensive experience in the NHL and with the style of play that will dominate the tournament, which will be played under NHL rules and on the smaller NHL ice surface.

Vinny Prospal, a forward, played 1,108 NHL games with seven teams. Spacek, a defenseman, played 880 NHL games with seven teams. Each has been very vocal and engaged throughout practices during the pretournament period.

Team Czech Republic has another former NHL player on its off-ice staff. Jiri Fischer, a defenseman with the Detroit Red Wings from 1999-2006, is the head of scouting.

Projected lineup

Jakub Voracek - Tomas Plekanec - Milan Michalek
David Pastrnak - Martin Hanzal - Ondrej Palatr
Michal Frolik - Vladimir Sobotka - Ales Hemsky
Dmitrij Jaskin - Radek Faksa - Michal Birner

Michal Kempny - Roman Polak
Jakub Nakladal - Andrej Sustr
Tomas Kundratek - Zbynek Michalek

Michal Neuvirth
Petr Mrazek
Ondrej Pavelec

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