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World Cup

Team Czech Republic embracing underdog role

Remain optimistic about World Cup chances despite injuries to key players

by Michael Langr / Correspondent

PRAGUE -- Team Czech Republic is missing three important players for the World Cup of Hockey 2016, growing their role as tournament underdogs.

But the players see the situation as a challenge they're ready to meet.

"For me, the best feeling was always to prove people that they were wrong," captain Tomas Plekanec said Monday, after the team's first practice, at O2 Arena. "When I was young, nobody believed me when I said I could play professional hockey and make it to the NHL. And I used it as a motivation to work even harder and prove those people they were wrong. It would be great to show everyone at [the World Cup] that they were wrong too."

Forward David Krejci is unable to play after having hip surgery in April. Forward Tomas Hertl is out because of a lower-body injury sustained during the Stanley Cup Final. And defenseman Radko Gudas has a wrist injury.

"Losing Krejci, Hertl and Gudas was not easy," Team Czech Republic general manager Martin Rucinsky said. "All of them are quality players. Krejci should have been our first center. We wanted to have Hertl among our top-six forwards as well. And [Gudas] is one of the toughest defensemen out there. We are going to miss those guys. But at the same time, we see it as a chance for others. It's not just us. Every team has had some changes and we have to deal with it. Let's move on and go forward."

Rucinsky and coach Josef Jandac added forwards Roman Cervenka and Michal Birner, and defenseman Tomas Kundratek to the roster. Birner skated at left wing with captain Tomas Plekanec at center and right wing Jakub Voracek on the first line Monday, but Cervenka is expected to take Birner's spot when he joins Team Czech Republic on Sunday from Fribourg-Gotteron in Switzerland. He'll miss the first two pretournament games, against Team Russia at Yubileyny Sports Palace, St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday (12:30 p.m. ET; ESPN3, SN, TVA Sports) and against Team Russia at O2 Arena on Saturday (10:30 a.m. ET; ESPN3, SN, TVA Sports).

Other lines Monday consisted of center Martin Hanzal with left wing Ondrej Palat and right wing David Pastrnak, Dallas Stars left wing Ales Hemsky and center Radek Faksa with Michael Frolik at right wing, and Vladimir Sobotka, Milan Michalek and Dmitrij Jaskin on the fourth line.

A focus at practice was how to get out of the defensive zone quickly and effectively.

The Czech Republic has to rely heavily on all-around defense and good goaltending. According to Jandac, the starting goaltender will be a competition between Petr Mrazek and Michal Neuvirth, with Ondrej Pavelec as the third goalie.

"I am ready and I feel good," Mrazek said. "We have guys who can stick together, and if we play as a team there is definitely a chance to win. It's a short-term tournament and we might not be favorites on the paper, but we'll see how it goes on the ice."

Jandac said he's not bothered by the opinion of others that Team Czech Republic has weakest roster of the eight teams at the World Cup.

"Those prognosis are always part of the business in these tournaments," he said. "But we are fine with it because hockey is played on the ice and the chances are open. It's the start of the season and just the roster by itself never won a tournament. The guys will have to bring it to the ice. We picked the best squad we could and the guys might at least have some motivation from those prognosis and try to disturb them.

"… I feel there is determination in the locker room and the players are motivated. They all [want to] go out there and win hockey games."

Defenseman Andrej Sustr plays with two superstars with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Team Canada forward Steven Stamkos and Team Sweden defenseman Victor Hedman. However he doesn't see the lack of star players on Team Czech Republic mattering.

"We don't have as many big names on our roster as they are on many other rosters," Sustr said. "But we will play with team effort and good defense and I believe that it can bring us success. Everyone has their pride and we are going to have a good tournament there."

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