Boasting one of the top goaltenders of the past decade and the NHL's leading scorer this season, the Czech Republic begins its quest to regain the gold medal when it takes on Germany at the Palasport Arena on Wednesday.
The Czechs lost in the quarterfinals at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, continuing a trend of winning a medal in every other Olympics that began in 1976 at Innsbruck. The Czech Republic has captured four medals - one gold, two silvers and a bronze - in the last eight Olympics, achieving its first gold at the 1998 Nagano Games.
Perhaps the best goaltender in the world at the time, Dominik Hasek led that team to the gold with a tournament-best 0.97 goals-against average as the Czechs defeated the United States in the quarterfinals, Canada in the semifinals and Russia in the gold-medal game.
Hasek, who played for the Buffalo Sabres in '98, took a year off after his Czech team was knocked out in the 2002 quarterfinals. He returned to the NHL and is back in top form this season, in the top five in the league in victories and goals-against average.
Of course, Hasek could be hard-pressed to have another spectacular Olympics without his equipment, which was lost on its way to Turin. There's no guarantee he will have it in time for the Germany game.
"Oh, I had some problems," the 41-year-old Hasek said Monday night after practicing with borrowed gear. "I don't know where it is. It's traveling somewhere in Washington, I believe. But we don't know for sure."
Assuming Hasek can solve his equipment problems, he'll join five other players from the 1998 team - Jaromir Jagr, Milan Hejduk, Vaclav Prospal, Martin Rucinsky and Martin Straka.
Like Hasek, who's rebounded to go 28-10 with a 2.09 GAA with the Ottawa Senators, Jagr has rediscovered his dominant form this season with the New York Rangers. Jagr, in his third Olympics, has 40 goals and 88 points in 58 games to lead the league in both categories. Those are his highest totals since 2000-01, when he had 52 goals and 69 assists for 121 points to win his fifth Art Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer.
Jagr should get help offensively from a roster that includes Prospal, tied for the most points on the Tampa Bay Lightning with 60, and David Vyborny, who tops the Columbus Blue Jackets with 44 points.
Jagr should also benefit from a sense of familiarity with his teammates, often a problem for Olympic squads that get little time to develop chemistry before the tournament. In addition to his teammates from the '98 squad, Jagr will be joined by defenseman Marek Malik, who along with Rucinsky and Straka gives the team four Rangers, the most ever named to the Czech team from one NHL club.
Germany is hoping for a better performance after being eliminated 5-0 by the United States in the quarterfinals four years ago. The Germans enter the Turin games with a roster featuring seven NHL players.
The most notable is Washington Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig, playing in his second Olympics and first since 1998. He missed the Salt Lake Games due to a knee injury.
Kolzig is having a rough season with the Caps, posting a 3.49 GAA, an .898 save percentage and 15-22-5 record. He has not finished a season with a GAA above 3.00 and a save percentage below .900 since the 1995-96 season, when he played in only 18 games Jim Carrey's backup.
Kolzig struggled in his last two games prior to the Olympics, allowing 11 goals in losses to Florida and Pittsburgh.
Joining Kolzig are two former Capitals teammates, Stefan Ustorf and Jan Benda. The 32-year-old Ustorf of Eisbaren Berlin and the 33-year-old Benda of HC Litvinov will be appearing in their fourth Olympics.
One player the Germans won't have is Boston Bruins forward Marco Sturm, who will skip the Olympics due to an upper-body injury. Sturm, who has 20 goals and 20 assists this season, was replaced on the roster by Tino Boos.
Germany's only two medals in hockey were bronzes, and both came from the former West German team. The last one was in 1976.
The Czech Republic routed Germany 8-2 when they met in Salt Lake City in 2002.