2008 WJC: Hosts Czech Republic try to put 2002 behind them

By Joeri Loonen

Six years ago, the Czech Republic last hosted the IIHF World Junior Championships. It ended in bitter disappointment as the Czechs finished fifth without ever looking like medal contenders. After another dismal performance during last year’s tournament, where they once again ranked fifth, the Czechs feel the pressure to perform this time.

The players available to coach Miloslav Horava are certainly capable of securing one of the top spots this year. Switzerland and Team USA are aware of that now as well. On Thursday, the Swiss were thrashed in an exhibition game 7-1. Last Saturday, Team USA , medalist hopefuls themselves, were given homework for Christmas after being romped by a Czech Republic team led by a dynamic Michael Frolik 5-2.

Frolik, a first round Florida Panthers draft pick, danced through the static USA-defense and stung like a bee at times. This season, the Rimouski Oceanic forward  has posted 10 goals and 21 assists from 20 games. He is one of the Czech players that will be called upon to perform on home ice. Last year, Frolik was relatively invisible for the Czechs, despite posting decent numbers with four goals and a pair of assists. Nevertheless, most of these points were scored in the fifth-place game against Finland.

The center will most likely be paired with two wingers who both have been across the pond as well. On left wing, 19-year-old Martin Latal will provide speed. The Phoenix Coyotes draft pick has yet to wow the PEI Rocket Fans but his small frame should not hinder him on the larger international ice. On the right side, Frolik will see David Kveton, a fourth-round draft pick of the New York Rangers. Kveton had a short spell in North America, having dressed for half a season with the Gatineau Olympiques. He decided to return home after the season though and is currently amongst the hottest prospects in the Czech top league, Extraliga. In 28 games for HC Trinec, he has accumulated 10 goals and 5 assists. (note – secondary assists are no longer awarded in the Czech Republic thus influencing the statistics).

As if the speed and skill of the first line is not already impressive, coach Horava can also rely on Jakub Voracek on his second line. Hailed as one of the most touting playmakers in the tournament, the Columbus Blue Jackets most recent first-round draft pick is turning opposition defenses to madness in the QMJHL. Having already accumulated 100+-points during the 2006-07 season for the Halifax Mooseheads, Voracek is destined to break these numbers this year. Currently he’s averaging two points per game and the fanatical Czech hockey fans are hoping the center can remain hot throughout the WJCs.

So far during two exhibition games, Voracek skated with Roman Szturc and Petr Strapac, who both play for HC Vitkovice in the Czech league.

Other familiar faces on the Czech squad are Brandon Wheat Kings center Daniel Bartak, Phoenix Coyotes fourth-round pick Vladimir Ruzicka and left winger Radek Meidl who skated for the Seattle Thunderbirds last season but failed to impress.

Whereas offensively the Czechs can surely compete with other medal candidates, their defense is a reason for concern.

Horava has turned to North America when selecting defense as no less than four defensemen are being flown over to strengthen the Czech back line. Forming the first line will be Antonin Boruta, of HC Zlin. He will play an important role during power plays being their go-to guy from the blue line. Furthermore Boruta is not afraid to join the rush when the opportunity is there. Boruta will be accompanied by 1990-born Michal Jordan. Although his name is often reason for jokes, make no mistake about the talent of this defenseman, the youngest player on the team. Despite his age, Jordan has already played for two teams in the OHL this season. After 6 points in 22 games he was dealt from the Windsor Spitfires to join the Plymouth Whalers. In nine games with his new team, he posted a goal and three assists.

Another important pairing for the Czechs will be that of Martin Paryzek and Jan Piskacek. Paryzek, an Ottawa 67ers defenseman, known for his vision, will be part of the Czech power play. Piskacek is an all-round defenseman who currently defends the colors of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the QMJHL.

Completing the Czech defense are Shawinigan Patrik Prokop and former Halifax defender Jiri Suchy. From the Czech league, Tomas Kundratek and David Kajinek are selected. The defense should be able to hold its own against equal opposition, but it remains questionable whether it can withstand the top forwards from teams like Canada, Russia or USA. In order to keep their medal chances alive, solid defense will be the key for the Czechs.

Historically the Czechs have always had strong goaltenders. This WJC that is no different with Jakub Kovar, Michal Neuvirth and Lukas Danecek to defend the net.

One of the six returnees from last year, Kovar will be looking for more ice time this year. Serving as a backup behind Ondrej Pavelec (ATL) last year, Kovar played in two games with mixed success. In the exhibition game against Team USA last Saturday, the Philadelphia Flyers prospect showed he is ready for full-time duty stopping 15 out of 16 shots including a number of sprawling saves to frustrate the likes of Kyle Okposo (NYI) and Blake Geoffrion (NAS).

But Kovar, who is tending the net for the Oshawa Generals, feels the competition breathing in his neck. Second-round Washington Capitals draft pick Michal Neuvirth, like Kovar, has been a regular to the Czech junior teams. Having left the Czech league two seasons ago, the coaching staff might not have had a good chance to evaluate the goaltender, but a telephone call to Plymouth or Windsor would give raving reviews.

Having two solid goaltenders available is a luxury not every team has. It gives Horava the chance to go with the hottest one before each game. In case of injury to either two, Lukas Danecek can be called upon to provide solid back-up services. Yet having to make his Extraliga debut, Danecek excels in the Czech junior league and his efforts were rewarded by Horava as he was given ice time during the third period against Team USA. His 14 saves on 15 shots will not have made the decision who to go with any easier.

Having the material to compete for a medal and their home fans behind them, the Czechs want to erase the memory of 2002. Therefore it’s unfortunate for them they are missing out on two other top players for different reasons. Jiri Tlusty would be logging major minutes but his NHL call-up has forced him not to be available for this tournament. Florida Panthers prospect Michal Repik would be a lock on the roster as well but he is still recovering from a concussion.

Outlook

It will be all or nothing for Miloslav Horava. Many coaches before him have not been able to live up to the high standards of the Czech fans and Federation and were hired only to be fired. Playing at home for sure doesn’t make the pressure any less. The Czechs haven’t won gold since 2001 and are without a medal since 2005. As one of the top nations globally it is time for a change of fortune. Offensively there are no problems. Their speed and skating along with their enthusiasm will cause lots of havoc in the offensive zone. How strong they are defensively, especially against strong opposition, is still a riddle. Furthermore the Czechs will need to stay away from the blame-game which they seem to have a copyright on. After, and even during, the failed WJC campaigns players and coaches were constantly pointing fingers towards each other in the media. Although this makes interesting stories to read, it is clear this doesn’t help the team chemistry one bit. With the majority of the media coming from the Czech Republic this year, it will be interesting to see whether the team can be tight lipped when results are below par in the early stages. Then again, if the Czechs fire off the tournament with a couple of victories the media will surely roll on the hype which will raise the team and fan spirit.