QUEBEC CITY, Canada – The last time Patrick Elias played at an IIHF World Championship, it was 1998, he played just three games, and he won bronze. In the last Olympics, where he was sidelined with bruised ribs in the opening game, he also won bronze.
But for this gifted Czech winger, who’s averaged close to a point-per-game in 126 career NHL playoff games, third place just isn’t good enough. He won the Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2000 and 2003, and now, with his Devils ousted in the opening round of the post-season, the 32-year-old has similarly high expectations for this Czech team.
“We have a decent team, obviously, with a lot of young guys and a lot of talent, plus some experience,” said Elias after the first Czech practice at the Colisée Pepsi. “It’s just a matter of us putting it together at the right time. I think we’re aiming for the highest goals. It starts tomorrow, and we’re ready to play.”
Although Elias has spent his entire NHL career labouring within the confines of the defence-first system New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello cherishes, that doesn’t mean he’ll have any difficulty adapting under Czech coach Alois Hadamczik, or getting comfortable with the European leaguers who spice up this year’s NHL-heavy roster. (And reading between the lines, you can surmise that he might have more fun in Quebec City than playing for Brent Sutter, who took away his Devils captaincy at the start of the season and gave it to Jamie Langenbrunner in December.)
“We all speak the same language here,” Elias said. “There is no problem. For me, especially, it’s such a great chance to get to play a different style. I enjoy it. It’s a lot more of a puck possession game, with a lot of skills and creativity. It’s fun. Czech guys have the same hockey mentality, and you can see that from the way the guys click together right away.”
To start the tournament, Elias will grace the top Czech line with Nashville’s Martin Erat, who lit it up with the 2006 silver-medal team (eight points in nine games), and 22-year-old Boston rookie David Krejci, whose five playoff points for the Bruins this year were second only to Marc Savard.
For the 183-cm, 90-kg veteran to make the contribution he’s capable of, he’ll need to forget what happened in his first-round playoff exit, which was defined by New York Rangers forward Sean Avery’s persistent and devilishly effective baiting of Devils goalie Martin Brodeur.
“We played 13 games against those guys this year, and we lost almost all of them,” Elias said. “It was a weird season. Every one of those games was very, very close. We just kept finding a way to lose instead of win.”
While Elias is surprised to see how the Rangers have been dominated by Pittsburgh in the second round, he’s not taken aback at all by how Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora are clicking together. He’s a close friend of Sykora’s from their Jersey days, and he teamed up with both stars on a line with Metallurg Magnitogorsk during the NHL lockout.
“Pittsburgh’s got unbelievable talent, and it’s good to see, because it shows everybody that you can win on talent and good hockey,” said Elias. “Petr’s a pure goal-scorer. He’s a sniper, and he always gets in a good position to put the puck in. If you have a playmaker like Malkin who’s going to get him the puck, you’ve got a great chance to win hockey games. I knew back in 2005 that Evgeni would be a great player in the NHL. The way he’s dominated hasn’t surprised me. I think he’s at the same level as Crosby and Ovechkin.”
Elias is picking Pittsburgh and Dallas to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. And he doesn’t mind that here in Quebec City, most observers are picking Canada and Russia as the tournament favourites.
“If they’re not talking about us, maybe that’s good,” he said with a chuckle. “It can help us sneak in under the radar. We have confidence that we can compete with the best teams.”
What does it mean to him to be back at the Worlds ten years later?
“You look at some guys who’ve been here five, six, or seven times. This tournament has a big history. You cannot forget where you come from. It’s an honour to represent your country.”