Now into the quarter-finals, this is when the stakes are high. For all teams today it is win or go home. Both the Americans and Czechs are hoping for success.
Ten years ago, with Peter Laviolette behind the bench, Team USA shocked the Czech Republic in the quarter-final game of the 2004 World Championships. The Americans will be looking for similar heroics this afternoon if there is a chance of advancing to the next round while the Czechs are expecting to get back in the hunt for a medal much as they have since 2010.
Although a very young team and many new performers for the senior men’s national team, the Americans have fared well in Minsk. With five wins in seven games, they finished second in Group B behind Russia. In their two losses to Russian and Latvia, defence was suspect and goaltending shaky. With the skilled forwards the Czechs have, a commitment to solid coverage in their zone is needed.
In this his first senior men’s tournament, Seth Jones has played with the poise of a veteran. Besides the points he’s racked up that have him among tournament scoring leaders, Jones has provided a steady hand on defense. His ability to fluidly carry the puck up ice and quarterback a power play are impressive to watch. There is a measured calm to his game that also fun to see.
Brock Nelson has played exceptionally well for his team. Tied with Tyler Johnson for the team lead in goals, Johnson has not been afraid to work in the corners, in front of the net and make his presence felt. His style of play has worked well in the system and has allowed him to really shine on this stage. The same can be said for his ability to understand where he is on the big ice and use it to his advantage. Two of his four goals have come on the power play.
The 40-year-old Tim Thomas has started all seven games at the World Championships. Even with five wins, Thomas has posted average numbers. His goals against is 3.38 and saves percentage a low 86.75. Still, his experience is second to none and what the Americans will ride the rest of the way. The Americans will look to draw penalties and put their tournament best power play out on the ice. They have scored 10 power play goals thus far.
The Czechs qualified third in Group A and a place in the quarter-finals with a comeback 5-4 overtime win in their final game of the Preliminary Round. From 2010-2012, the Czechs won gold and two bronze medals before finishing a disappointing seventh last year. Since the start of the 00's, the Czechs have won three gold medals.
Just like the Americans, the Czechs are riding their fortunes with one goaltender. Alexander Salak has seen the bulk of duty in goal. Salak has won four games in seven starts with a 2.11 goals against average. Still, his saves percentage is particularly low.
The ageless Jaromir Jagr just keeps moving along and producing at a fine clip. The 42-year-old Jagr is leading the Czechs in scoring with four goals and seven points in his ninth World Championship appearance. As with this time in the NHL this season, Jagr seems to be having fun and energized playing alongside the younger players on the squad. Some days Jags looks like he could play until 50.
Sensational youngster Tomas Hertl not only gets to play for the senior national team for the first time but he gets to do it with his boyhood idol, Jagr. After a disappointing finish to the NHL playoffs for the San Jose Sharks, Hertl has arrived in time to bolster the Czech offence. Ondrej Nemec has been a workhorse on defence. He’s logged 156:26 of ice time, averaging over 22 minutes per game. He’s also registered five assists and six points. Having missed the Winter Olympics due to injury, Vladimir Sobotka made the trip to Minsk and is contributing. Jakub Kindl is another defenseman putting in the time and adding to the experience.
The Czechs have the upfront talent to move the puck and get it in the net despite what their tournament scoring efficiency suggests. The are third from the bottom in scoring efficiency. They will need more shots and get high quality chances on Tim Thomas to be successful.
If the Americans can play above their years and experience and get the special teams working today then they have a chance to win. They have not played bad in this tournament and have jelled since being assembled for this tournament some weeks ago. The Czechs are always dangerous when it comes to World Championship playoff hockey. They have the medals to demonstrate their success. But really this game sees two teams matched well enough for an entertaining game. It is no understatement that goaltending with be a huge factor for both teams today.