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Banged-up Slovakia excited to face neighbor

by John Dellapina
CZECH REPUBLIC (0-0-0-0) vs. SLOVAKIA (0-0-0-0)

NOTE: records are presented as three-point wins (regulation time), two-point wins (OT or shootout), one-point losses (OT or shootout), zero-point losses (regulation time).

What to watch -- For the Czechs, there are bigger and better rivals these days -- a Russian bear to tangle with on Rivalry Sunday five days from now. For the Slovaks, this could well be their gold-medal game.

Four years ago, Slovakia stunningly went 5-0-0 in pool play. Then it met the Czechs in the quarterfinals, and a 3-1 Czech victory abruptly, bitterly ended the Slovaks' medal hopes. Yet again, their bigger, richer former countrymen proved dominant at a pivotal moment.

While the Czechs, who captured bronze in Torino, undeniably are diminished from their days in the late 1990s as the world's preeminent hockey power, the Slovaks are even more downtrodden. And with its top two forwards nursing injuries -- Marian Hossa hopes to play after suffering a concussion last Saturday; Marian Gaborik almost certainly will not because of a lacerated thigh -- Slovakia again is cast in its familiar role as an underdog.

As for style of play, this one could go in any number of ways. Neither team has an elite NHL goaltender, though both possess keepers who have had strong NHL seasons. Both are counting on aging forwards who have produced big numbers in the past.

The cliché is that you can throw out the record books when rivals like this meet. That might be true from the Czech perspective. But it is all about the history and the geopolitics for the Slovaks.

Team Reports:
Czech Republic -- Tomas Vokoun didn't expect to be the No. 1 goalie for the Czechs four years ago in Italy; it was supposed to be Dominik Hasek's job. But the legendary Hasek went down with an injury and Vokoun was pressed into service.

He got the Czechs all the way to the semifinals, where they were thrashed by Sweden, the eventual gold medalists. Vokoun bounced back to shut out Russia for the bronze medal.

He arrives in Vancouver as the undisputed No. 1 for his country -- and the last line of defense in the most difficult of the round-robin's three groups.

"You can look at it as a bad thing or you can think of it as a way to get into the tournament very quickly," Vokoun said of having to face Slovakia and Russia in Group play. "We know what we're up against, but there are a lot of experienced players in our locker room. So nobody is going to get to the first game and be surprised."

Jaromir Jagr remains the most compelling player in a Czech jersey -- even if he no longer wears an NHL jersey the rest of the year. It will be fascinating to watch whether No. 68, having turned 38 Monday, has had his skills erode after two seasons in the KHL or can rev it up yet again on the big stage.

The Czechs also will be counting on younger forwards like Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils and Martin Havlat of the Minnesota Wild to lead their offense. On the back end, the Czechs have a puck-moving quarterback in Tomas Kaberle of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a big shot from Pavel Kubina of the Atlanta Thrashers and plenty of size and mobility.

Expect the Czechs to attack with all five skaters, getting their defensemen in the weaving act. And expect them to count on Vokoun to make his share of big saves.
Slovakia -- A split of their first two withering games -- they play the Russians Thursday -- would be a major success for the Slovaks. This is by far their best chance for an upset as Russia will be rested and coming off a less difficult Olympic opener (against Latvia on Monday).

Waiting until Wednesday to open their tournament might fray other teams' nerves, but it will provide Slovakia with precious extra time to enable Hossa and Gaborik to heal.

Hossa was waiting to see how he came out of yesterday's practice and an examination by team doctors today to see if he was declared fully healed from a concussion suffered last Saturday. The Slovak team physician said Gaborik almost certainly was out until the Group-play finale against Latvia on Saturday. That would mean that, in the two games in which it's really needed, Slovakia's lone breakaway speed will be missing.

Hulking defensemen Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins and Milan Jurcina of the Columbus Blue Jackets will attempt to keep second chances on goaltender Jaroslav Halak to a minimum. That will be a challenge throughout Group play given who the Slovaks will face.

"We have tough games right away," Hossa said. "But if we start well, that will give us lots of confidence."

Total NHL players on the rosters: 29 -- 16 Czechs, 13 Slovaks.

Puck Drop -- "We've got a tough group. Slovakia's got a lot of great players, so it's not going to be easy. There are a lot of great teams, but everybody is used to that from playing in the NHL." -- Czech forward Martin Havlat.

Prediction -- Even with Gaborik out and Marian Hossa not at full strength, the Slovaks have their Olympic moment. Former New York Islanders sniper Ziggy Palffy has a flashback game and Jaroslav Halak sparkles in goal as Slovakia pulls out a 3-2 squeaker to throw the toughest group in this round into a free-for-all.
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