Sochi men's quarterfinal preview: Team USA vs. Czech Republic
The Game: U.S. vs. Czech Republic, Noon ET on USA Network in the U.S., and TSN2 in Canada.
Get pucks, and bodies, on Pavelec: The one thing that Team USA has done consistently throughout this tournament is to get pucks to the net -- it's almost as if coach Dan Bylsma has stock in Corsi. His players are taking shots at every opportunity and sending bodies to the crease in hot pursuit. That's a recipe for success against Czech goalie Ondrej Pavelec, a netminder who can be brilliant at times, but who has also struggled with rebound control, something he did when Slovakia started peppering him in the third period of Tuesday's elimination game. With rebounds to be had, and the Czechs lacking any physical defenders outside of the lightly used Radko Gudas, the U.S. should dominate down low.
Control the middle: The key to Team USA's success to this point has been its ability to make things happen in the middle of the ice. While that starts with a savvy transition from the back end, it lives or dies on the strength and speed of Ryan Kesler, David Backes and especially Joe Pavelski and Paul Statstny. That group of centers has been wildly effective to this point, helping to create 11 goals by American forwards. If Kesler, Backes, Pavelski and Stastny are on their game, the Czechs will be on their heels.
Tired legs: The Czechs are not a young team, a fact that seemed painfully evident as Slovakia nearly reeled them back in during a frantic third-period comeback on Tuesday, when a 4-0 Czech Republic lead suddenly shrank to 4-3. Much has been made of the fact that the Czechs are trotting out 42-year-old winger Jaromir Jagr for nearly 20 minutes a night, but it's on the blue line, where the average age is 31, that this team could really feel the weight of back-to-back games. The Czechs used 37-year-old Marek Zidlicky and 35-year-old Tomas Kaberle as their top defensive pairing against Slovakia, and both players were exposed more than once as the game got into crunch time. They might survive the first 40 minutes against the U.S., but the speed of the American attackers, especially in the neutral zone, will reveal them as the old dogs they are.
Czech power play: Lacking the depth to keep up with the Americans at even strength, the Czechs will look to make hay on a power play that clicked twice against the Slovaks and is now converting at a 25 percent clip. The trick will be to play aggressively enough to force Team USA to take penalties in the first place. If the Czechs can't do that while challenging the Americans with speed and creativity, this one won't be close.
Sick bay: Patrik Elias took part in the morning skate ahead of Tuesday's qualifying win over Slovakia, but the stomach ailment that has plagued him for a week forced him to miss his second game of the tournament. No official word yet on whether he'll be available for the game against the U.S., but if he was that close today, it's a good bet that he'll be ready to go on Wednesday. That would be a key add, particularly for the Czechs' special teams.
Who to watch for the Czech Republic: For the first time in the tournament, David Krejci seemed fully engaged against Slovakia. Being moved to the first power play unit ahead of Petr Nedved (no kidding) put some jump in his step, and led to one of the prettier goals of the tournament. Krejci can be an extremely dangerous player with a deadly knack for exploiting the briefest gaps in coverage, but he needs to pull the trigger when the situation merits it -- instead of thinking pass first, second and third -- to maximize his impact.
Who to watch for the USA: Amazingly, not one of the Blackhawks' 10 Olympians had scored in this tournament before Marian Hossa got Chicago off the schneid with a pair on Tuesday against the Czechs. Hossa's breakthrough felt almost inevitable, just as it does for Patrick Kane, who has had his chances -- nine shots, including one on a breakaway in overtime against Russia -- but hasn't yet found the back of the net. It's not like the U.S. can't win without him lighting the lamp, but as the sledding gets tougher, the chances of winning three more games improve dramatically if Kane is chipping in.
What to expect: Krejci said after the Slovakian game that he wouldn't like his club's chances against Team USA in a seven-game series but that “in a best-of-one, who knows?” He's right. The U.S. is vastly superior on paper, and they all seem to be pulling in the same direction under coach Dan Bylsma -- something that can't be said for the Czechs -- but stranger things have happened (just ask Tommy Salo). That said, Team USA is too fast and too deep, and unless Pavelec channels the spirit of Dominik Hasek in 1998, the Americans will put up six on this team without breaking a sweat.