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Russia, Czech Republic get Super Sunday started

by John Dellapina
Czech Republic (2-0-0-0, 6 points) vs. Russia (1-0-1-0, 4 points)
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 --
Two traditional rivals who play some of the most highly-skilled hockey in the world will take the ice for the first of three scintillating Sunday matchups. This one has all of the history, geopolitical trappings and personal connections to make for great theater.

Neither team's top players have erupted -- unless you count 38-year-old Czech winger Jaromir Jagr, who entered these Olympics as more of a sideshow than leading man. But both teams' stars have produced moments of brilliance. And, given the setting and the emotions, this one should not be missed.

The winner takes the Group B title and earns an automatic berth in the quarterfinals, which begin Wednesday. The Czechs could earn the fourth pass to the quarters if they lose -- particularly if they do it in overtime or in a shootout. But the Russians would be relegated to one of four dangerous "qualifying" games on Tuesday that will determine the four lower seeded teams for the eight-team quarters.

Will Jagr continue to turn back the clock? Will Alexander Ovechkin explode? Will Tomas Vokoun continue to be solid in the Czech net? Will Evgeni Nabokov come through or make critics wonder why Ilya Bryzgalov wasn’t tabbed to start this game?

Team Reports:

Czech Republic --
Vladimir Ruzicka, the Czech coach, admitted that he thought about changing his forward lines, which haven’t exactly clicked even in two victories. But he decided to stick with his combinations … for now.

Ruzicka had no such deliberations regarding his goaltender. Tomas Vokoun, the backup to Dominik Hasek who was pressed into service in the Torino Games four years ago, knew he was the undisputed No. 1 coming here. And he has stopped 50 of 53 shots so far. Of course, he has yet to face an attack comparable to the Russians'.

The Czechs' puck-moving defensemen have been productive. Marek Zidlicky leads all tournament defensemen with four points (all assists) and Tomas Kaberle has a goal, an assist and eight shots on goal.

But fans' eyes have been drawn to Jagr. He's scoring, making plays, carrying the puck with the command that he displayed in the NHL and getting more comfortable with each shift.

Russia -- In theory, assigning the ultra-reliable Pavel Datsyuk to center Ovechkin and Semin made sense. In practice, it didn't work that well. Ovechkin scored twice in the opening game rout of Latvia but nobody on that top line hit the scoresheet in the shootout loss to Slovakia.

So the Russian lines will be reconfigured to face the Czechs. Evgeni Malkin, whose off-ice relationship with Ovechkin has been the subject of much interest, gets the job of playing middle man for Ovechkin and Semin. Datsyuk "drops down" to play with Ilya Kovalchuk and Maxim Afinogenov.

So far, the decision by GM Vladislav Tretiak to have so many KHL players on his roster has not backfired. Russia’s third and fourth lines appeared to draw upon the familiarity they have from having played together for months. But now that the competition gets stiffer and the games get more important, there can be no substitute for top-end talent.

Nabokov kept focused for two periods against Latvia in the opener and then let his mind wander and gave up a couple of third-period goals. Bryzgalov was similarly sharp through 40 minutes and then less so late against Slovakia.

Bykov goes back to Nabokov for this game in a decision that was hardly obvious.

Total NHL players in game: 30 -- In addition to the 16 Czechs and 14 Russian NHLers, there are a couple of guys who enjoyed a moment or two in NHL play: Czech winger Jaromir Jagr and Russian center Sergei Fedorov, who combined to score 1,129 goals and 2,778 points in 2,521 League games.

Puck Drop -- Jagr said that pre-tournament predictions, though understandable, don't mean much on a game-to-game basis. "You saw it the last two days: it's not easy," Jagr said. "Canada found out (in needing a shootout to beat Switzerland). Russia found out (in losing in a shootout to Slovakia). You have to battle to the end and you have to be lucky to win the tournament. It's not good enough only to be good, because everybody is good."

Prediction -- Though not dominant, Russia rises to the occasion here. Against a together Czech team that knows how to defend, Russia pulls out a 4-2 victory to earn the Group B title and a spot in the quarterfinals.

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