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Plenty at stake as Czechs meet Russia

by John Dellapina
VANCOUVER -- Evgeni Nabokov gets the net. Evgeni Malkin gets to center Alex Ovechkin. And we all get to see whether the much-anticipated Russian superstar offensive explosion is ignited by the combustible mix that is always Czechs vs. Russians.

Before the North American grudge match between Canada and the United States causes everything north of the 49th parallel other than hockey viewing to come to a complete stop, the latest installment of the fiercest hockey rivalry in Eastern Europe takes center stage at Canada Hockey Place Saturday afternoon.

"I think it's the finals tomorrow," venerable Russian center Sergei Fedorov said. "For us, I personally think it's the final and we have to play that hockey that we have talked about before."

While Fedorov might get an argument from 10 other national teams, since elimination games don’t begin until Tuesday, there is no denying the magnitude of the latest Czech-Russia clash.

At stake? Well, there’s the matter of the automatic berth in the Olympic quarterfinals that goes to the winner. And that is no small thing, given that playing an extra game in this compressed, single-elimination tournament exposes a team to immediate peril and eventual exhaustion.

But there’s also the historical significance. In the 14 Olympics in which they’ve both competed, Russian or Soviet teams have met Czech or Czechoslovakian sides 14 times. Before the break-up of the Soviet Union, the guys wearing the feared CCCP sweaters won 10 of 11 -- losing only during the Prague Spring of 1968. Since the USSR dissolved in 1991 and Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe -- including soon-to-be divided Czech Republic and Slovakia -- ended, the Czechs and Russians have split six Olympic meetings.

And the Czechs have won the whoppers -- with Dominik Hasek shutting out Russia, 1-0, for the gold medal in 1998 and with Tomas Vokoun doing the honors in the Czechs’ 3-0 win in the 2006 bronze medal game.

Still, ask anybody at these Games -- from the players on rival teams, to the thousands of blue-clad volunteers, to the tens of thousands of Canadian partisans in red and white who have jammed Canada Hockey Place for every game and the streets of Vancouver every night -- and the answer is the same: the team that evokes the most fear is Russia.

The reasons are obvious. Ovechkin and his NHL-high 261 goals over the last five years -- including a League-leading 42 this season. Ilya Kovalchuk and his five straight 40-goal seasons. Malkin and his ridiculous combination of size, speed and skill. The list goes on and on.

And yet, through two games in these Olympics, the whole has been a bit less than the sum of its wondrous parts. A 2-1 loss to Slovakia Thursday in a game that required a seven-round shootout was a particular shock to the Russian system.

So Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov, who knows a thing or two about the chemistry of proper line combinations from his days as a forward on the Soviet Union’s Big Red Machine, went into the lab Friday and poured out a couple of new mixes onto the Brittania Center practice ice Saturday.

"Well, it's a good time for us," Ovechkin said. "We have a couple of days off, a way to reload our weapons and reload our minds and get ready for tomorrow's game.

"I think for me right now and for this team, it doesn't matter who is going to play with who. The most important thing is the result at the end of the game and right now we give everything for the results. Everybody wants to be on top."

Bykov’s counterpart, Czech coach Vladimir Ruzicka, said he considered tinkering with his lines and then thought better of it after a squeaker over Slovakia and a romp over Latvia. So, at even strength, the top line will remain Patrik Elias-Tomas Plekanec-Martin Havlat. And, at least at even strength, Jaromir Jagr will remain on a second line with Roman Cervenka on the left and Petr Cajanek at center.

For Jagr, this game is yet another opportunity to remind North American fans of his greatness while raising the decibel level on talk about whether he’ll return to the NHL next season upon the expiration of his two-year contract with Omsk of the KHL.

For his part, Jagr is happy that he personally entered the tournament with many underestimating him. And that his entire team has been overlooked when discussions of gold medal contenders have been had -- even if the Czech Republic won one of only three Olympic gold medals at stake (in 1998) when NHL players were included.

"I said it before the tournament: Nobody is going to really talk about us," Jagr said. "That’s fine. We don’t have the stats for that. When you look at the names, we’re not big favorites.

"But on the other side, I’ve been on a team when we were not favorites at all and we won the tournament. Because this is a tournament about one game. And the difference between winning and losing is so tight.

 "You can be favored all you want, but it sometimes happens, the goalie has a bad game or gives up a bad shot or you have an injury and you go home and you have to wait another four years. That’s why this tournament is so special."

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