The Czech Republic skates to Vancouver on the path less taken. The spotlight is shining brightest on Canada, but the heat also is building on a powerhouse Russian team and on the defending Olympic champs from Sweden.
That leaves the Czechs waiting in the wings, just off center stage.
Taking the Czechs, who won the bronze in 2006 and the gold in 1998, lightly could be a big mistake because of the impressive array of talent coach Vladimir Ruzicka can utilize during the tournament, especially among the forwards.
So, take the Czechs lightly at your peril. Remember, no one expected to hear from them in 1998 either.
Tomas Vokoun took over for an injured Dominik Hasek in Torino and helped the Czechs secure a medal. He appeared in seven games, going 3-4 with a 2.46 goals-against average.
"I just knew I had to be ready," Vokoun told NHL.com. "I wasn't supposed to be the No. 1 goalie, but, in saying that, you just never know how events will turn out. I just was ready and went in the net and played the best I could."
This time around, Vokoun will be ready from the get-go. He is the No. 1 goalie this time, likely backed up by Atlanta's Ondrej Pavelec.
When it comes to international success, Vokoun has his bronze medal from '06 and a gold medal with the Czechs at the 2005 World Championships in Austria after posting a 7-1 record, 1.08 goals-against average and .953 save percentage, so there will be no stage fright in the Czech crease. In a span of four years, Vokoun has gone from being the savior as a backup to being the man in charge as the 2010 Games in Vancouver approach.
"Regardless of which country you play for, having the Olympics in Canada, where it's the national sport, is going to be huge," Vokoun said. "I'm honored and proud to be one of the goalies getting the chance to play. It's my second Olympics and, as an athlete, regardless of whether you're professional or amateur, it's great to play and be a part of the Olympics."
The Czechs boast plenty of NHL experience on defense for the 2010 Games. Toronto's Tomas Kaberle is the best of the bunch, a veteran puck-mover who will log lots of minutes and quarterback the power play. In 2006, Kaberle scored 2 goals and 2 assists in four games at the '02 Games, so he is accustomed to Olympic play.
In Vancouver, the Olympics will be contested on NHL-sized rinks, meaning having a big body like Atlanta's Pavel Kubina -- 6-foot-4, 250 pounds -- will be a bonus for the Czechs. In 56 games with the Thrashers, Kubina has 5 goals and 25 assists and is a plus-6, averaging 22:42 per game.
One more defenseman to keep an eye on is Minnesota's Marek Zidlicky, who hovers in the same statistical categories as Kaberle and Kubina. In 57 games with the Wild, Zidlicky has 4 goals and 29 assists. He scored 4 goals and 1 assist at the '06 Olympics.
Jaromir Jagr will be back on an NHL rink for the Vancouver Games, but the impetus for the Czech forward lines likely will see team captain Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils on the left side of a line with Montreal Canadiens center Tomas Plekanec and Minnesota's Martin Havlat on the right side.
Elias has just returned from a three-week absence due to concussion-like symptoms and he missed the start of the season recovering from surgery. Still, he has been productive when on the ice, scoring 10 goals and 18 assists in 34 games. This is his third Olympics. His excellent playmaking skills and deceptive shot should work well with a strong offensive center like Plekanec, who has scored 15 goals and 43 assists in 60 games for Montreal this season. Havlat is the wild card on what could be Ruzicka's top line. One of the most sublimely talented players in the NHL, he got off to a terrible start with the Wild this season. In 52 games, Havlat has 13 goals and 26 assists, but he is capable of more as his 29 goals and 48 assists with Chicago in 2008-09 attests.
Jagr needs no introduction. He scored 646 goals and 953 assists in 1,273 NHL games as one of the most dynamic players of his generation before moving on to play in Russia. He could find his way to the top line, subbing out Havlat or work on another scoring line with the Capitals' Tomas Fleischmann, who is enjoying a breakthrough season with 17 goals and 24 assists in 48 games this season. Ottawa's Milan Michalek, with 19 goals and 8 assists in 52 games with the Senators this season, will be an offensive answer on the left side of the Czechs' second line.
The 2010 Winter Games are the first for Plekanec, who does have international experience at several World Championships. Only 27, Plekanec has proven to be a reliable point producer for the Canadiens and now has the opportunity to shine for his country on the Olympic stage. Augmented by talented linemates like Elias and Havlat or Jagr, it may well provide the opportunity to take his game to the next level.
Striking it rich
Boiled down to its essence, Vokoun's plan will ultimately tell the tale for the Czechs in Vancouver. Ruzicka's team should be able to score, but so will just about every other top team in the tournament. Without strong goaltending, the Czechs will come up short against the Canadians, Russians and Swedes. But with Vokoun, who normally faces a ton of shots with the Florida Panthers, bringing his "A" game, he will help the Czechs steal a game or two and that will take this club a long way.