BRATISLAVA – Czech forward Petr Prucha was the centre of attention after the team’s Tuesday practice. The bruises on his neck reminded him of the 5-2 win over Germany, but he could give the all-clear to journalists.
Prucha was able to practise with the team after receiving a shot on his neck and will be back in the line-up for today’s quarter-final game against the United States. Martin Havlat, who left the ice with an injury as well during the Germany game, is also expected to be on the line-up, although he missed the practice.
Milan Michalek will be back, too. He missed the game against Germany after being hit in the match against Russia, but he was skating with the team on Tuesday, which means that all players except Radek Martinek will be ready for the Americans.
It’s the first time Prucha has played with the national team since winning the 2005 IIHF World Championship in Vienna. He left home after four years as a professional player in the Czech Extraliga following the gold-medal win.
Prucha made the New York Rangers’ roster immediately in 2005 and played in the NHL for six years for the Rangers and the Phoenix Coyotes. Only this year it didn’t work so well in Phoenix. He spent most of the season on the farm team, the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage, before signing with Russian club SKA St. Petersburg in January.
Representing his nation is the highlight of Prucha’s season. The Czechs have been undefeated for 11 World Championship games going into the quarter-final game against the United States, including six games this year in Bratislava.
“I’m not really surprised,” Prucha says about the Czech streak. “I know we have a good team, and we played well even in the exhibition games without our NHL players. We have great players, a good team and a good system, and if everybody is playing according to the system, we’re even stronger.”
The Czechs have produced the most goals (23) only behind Canada with a scoring efficiency of 12.37%, second behind the surprising Norwegians.
Players like Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias, Tomas Plekanec and Milan Michalek have shown a great World Championship campaign up front so far.
“Jagr is one of the best players in the world. It’s not surprising for me that he can play his best hockey even at his age,” Prucha says about the 39-year-old, who’s the oldest player in the 2011 IIHF World Championship. “He’s always working hard on himself and he never stops working. He’s a leader and if he plays good, the team is following him.”
The World Championship comeback after six years has only been a pleasure so far for Prucha and after spending his season in North America and Russia, he feels like home.
“Bratislava is a great city. It’s kind of similar to Czech cities as we used to live together in the same country,” Prucha explains.
The border between the countries is only some 50 kilometres north of Bratislava and the proximity has brought lots of Czechs fans to the Slovak capital, which has been a two-time IIHF World Championship host during the Czechoslovak era.
“I have felt like being the home team here from the beginning,” Prucha says. “The Czech fans are awesome. They’re cheering for us and we can really feel their support. We really appreciate that and we hope they’re continuing doing a great job.”
And the Czech fans certainly hope their team will be continuing doing a great job at the Orange Arena as well. But while feeling like home, Prucha doesn’t see any disadvantage despite the infamous “home ice curse”.
“I played at the World Championship in Vienna in 2005 and it was the same thing,” the winger remembers.
“It’s pretty close to the Czech Republic and it was a great place for the fans too. And we even won there, so I hope it’s going to be the same thing here,” he says with a smile on his face.
“All players are professionals, so we can handle the pressure. Personally, I like that pressure. It makes me a better player. I can feel the importance of the game and it takes the best out of me.”
The game is important indeed. The 6-0 record at the World Championship can easily sink into oblivion if the Czechs lose their quarter-final match-up to the United States on Wednesday afternoon. And Prucha knows that.
“It’s always great to win six games in a row, but now it’s all about this game [against the U.S.] and we have to win this one,” he says.
“I don’t really know the team they have here, but they’re always really good, so it will be a good game.”