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Surprising Slovaks try to end Czechs' run earlier than expected

NHL.com @NHL

Despite finishing last in its group during the preliminary round, the Czech Republic is encouraged going into the quarterfinals. Slovakia never had a reason to feel discouraged.

The upstart Slovaks, yet to lose in this tournament, look to oust one of the pre-Olympic favorites to win the gold medal when they meet the Czechs on Wednesday.

A victory will give Slovakia the best result in its Winter Games history, the previous being a sixth-place finish in 1994 at Lillehammer.

This also is the first Olympic matchup between these nations since the 1993 split of Czechoslovakia.

"(Wednesday) is the biggest game in Slovakian hockey history," Peter Bondra said. "This is the Olympics. The Czechs are one of the favorites. We want to write history in the quarterfinals."

With two of hockey's biggest stars in Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek on the roster, the Czech Republic was considered a top medal contender going to Turin.

However, Hasek was lost for the Olympics to a leg injury in the team's opener, and scoring has been hard to come by when playing against top competition.

The Czechs scored four goals in each of their victories over Germany and Italy - the only teams from Group A that failed to reach the quarters - but was held to two goals in losses to surprising Switzerland and Finland and struggling Canada.

"We didn't win a lot of games, but the tournament really starts with the quarterfinals," Czech forward Milan Hejduk said. "(Tuesday) we showed some signs of life and, if we play well in the next few games, we'll be fine."

Tuesday's 3-2 loss to Canada did not seem to bother the team because it finished strong. The Czechs outshot the Canadians 26-8 over the final two periods and nearly came back to tie the game after trailing 3-0 at the end of the first period.

"Everything's positive in our dressing room," Czech forward Jan Bulis said. "We don't think in terms of having lost today's game. We just look at the effort we put in during the second and third period, and tomorrow we have to do the same thing from the first minute."

Just getting off to a good start, however, will not be good enough against the Slovaks - the surprise winners of Group B. They outscored the opposition 7-0 in the third period during the preliminary round, joining Finland as the only teams to win all five of their round-robin games.

Marian Hossa has keyed Slovakia's run, tying for the tournament lead with nine points. He's scored at least one goal in four straight games.

Jagr was expected to perform similarly for the Czech Republic. He had a goal in each of the team's first two games, but was bloodied by a check against the boards in a 4-2 loss to Finland on Saturday and has not been effective since.

The New York Rangers superstar and NHL scoring leader has not scored in the last three games while totaling five shots, compared to 11 through the first two games.

While Jagr is tied with Martin Straka for the team lead with five points, Hossa is one of three Slovaks with at least six - Pavol Demitra and Marian Gaborik are the others.

Another NHL veteran has helped spur on the Slovaks lately.

Bondra, the 38-year-old Atlanta Thrashers teammate of Hossa, has scored a goal in all four games he's played.

"We are not too high because we know the tournament starts now," Bondra said.

Bondra and the Czechs look to take advantage of Tomas Vokoun, who has been inconsistent since taking over for Hasek. Vokoun has a dismal .875 save percentage and was pulled after the first period of Tuesday's loss.

"It's a brand new season," Vokoun said. "Everybody has the same chance."

The winner will face Sweden or Switzerland in the semifinals on Friday.

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