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Czechs try to avoid trap game vs. Latvia

by John Dellapina

CZECH REPUBLIC (1-0-0-0) vs. LATVIA (0-0-0-1)

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 -- This could be the ultimate trap game for the Czech Republic, as it is wedged between two traditional rivalry games - Wednesday's opener against Slovakia and Sunday's Group B heavyweight match vs. Russia.

It could, that is, if the Czechs had come out roaring in their opener and were feeling overconfident. But beating Slovakia 3-1 was as much of an escape as a triumph, as the Czechs were outshot badly and outplayed for lengthy stretches.

The Czechs need to win Group B to avoid playing an extra game in the medal round - something that would be no favor to 38-year-old Jaromir Jagr. To do so, they need their game honed in time for meeting the Russians. It didn't look honed vs. the Slovaks.

If nothing else, the party will be on in the stands. The Czech and Latvian fans are among the most joyous here -- and while the mood of the Czech fans depends upon the performance of their team, the Latvian fans are here as much for the party as the games.

Team Reports:

Czech Republic -- Thanks to Jagr, who isn't even on their top line here, the Czechs survived an often discombobulated first-game performance in their 3-1 victory over Slovakia.

While defenseman Tomas Kaberle of the Toronto Maple Leafs uncorked several bombs from the left point, the Czechs' power play was largely ineffectual on its first five tries. On its sixth, Jagr nudged a puck into the slot for Tomas Plekanec to poke home just two seconds before the second-period horn.

Moving Jagr onto the No. 1 power-play unit for that sixth try seemed to change the dynamic. Presumably, coach Vladimir Ruzicka will stick with that tactic against Latvia.

Unlike in Torino four years ago, when he unexpectedly was pressed into service when Dominik Hasek went down with an injury, Tomas Vokoun has had a long time to think about being the CzechRepublic's No. 1 goalie for this tournament. He had no trouble handling the responsibility, turning aside 34 of 35 shots Wednesday night.

"Honestly, when I go into every game, I don't want to give up any goals," Vokoun said. "So it doesn't change for me if I'm playing in the NHL for Florida or here. This is a little bit tougher because, if you have a bad game during the NHL season, there are many more coming and if you have a bad game here you could exit out of the tournament."

Latvia -- The Latvians have no medal hopes here. But they do have four chances to be giant-killers. Chance No. 1 didn't last very long - the lethal Russian attack struck early to take command of the Group B opener Tuesday night. Chance No. 2 comes against the Czechs.

At least the Latvians still figure to be focused on the tournament. After stunningly tying the United States in their Olympic opener at Torino four years ago, the Latvians were outscored 26-8 over their next four games - seemingly as hung over by the initial result as their delirious, cowbell-clanging fans.

Dallas Stars defenseman Karlis Skrastins, one of only two NHLers on the Latvian roster, said he would tell his teammates not to star-gaze but rather to believe they belong. That's easier said than done for Latvian players who have never attended an NHL game, no less played in one

Total NHL players on the rosters -- Czech Republic 16, Latvia 2 (Skrastins of the Dallas Stars and Oskars Bartulis of Philadelphia)

Puck drop -- "I don't think there really are any favorites because, playing together for just four days, it's hard to tell who are the best players and who are the best teams. On the other hand, it never hurts if you've got skilled, great players." -- Czech Republic forward Martin Havlat

Prediction -- Latvian goaltender Edgars Masalskis faced 45 Russian shots in Tuesday night's game. He could face just as many in this one as the Czechs press to get their game going. Figure on Jagr and Co. exerting their will early and often in a 7-3 victory.

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