Road to redemption
Road to redemption
Beat the neighbours, recover lost pride
It's been a difficult tournament for Central Europe's representatives. While neither the Czechs nor the Slovaks were among anyone's top medal picks, both were expected to fare better in their respective groups.
Yet goal-shy offence and - on occasion - calamitous defence has left the neighbouring nations with just one victory between them ahead of their Qualification Round meeting on Tuesday evening.
However, the beauty of the Olympic format is that it gives teams a second chance, no matter how disappointing the group games have been, and both Slovakia and the Czech Republic are anxious to seize that opportunitiy.
For the Slovaks, rocked by embarrassing losses to the USA (1-7) and Slovenia (1-3), a shoot-out defeat against Russia after 65 scoreless minutes is a source of great optimism.
Those first two games demanded changes - in attitude and in personnel - as Branko Radivojevic explained. "We had a little meeting before the Russian game," he said.
"Obviously we had to improve our game because we didn't play right (against Slovenia). I think everybody stuck with the plan, and we were waiting for our chances. We had a lot of chances but unfortunately we didn't score. Even so it's a great game to go into the playoffs."
The key personnel change was the introduction of goalie Jan Laco, generally seen as the third choice going into the competition. His inspired form kept the Russians at bay until the shoot-out, reversing a trend of leaky defence that had plagued Slovakia in its early games.Continue reading
But forward Richard Panik also pointed to small tactical adjustments. "We changed a few things in the neutral zone," he said. "I think that was a big reason we lost in the first two games.
"I think we finally played a 60-minute game against Russia. We have to be ready from the first shift to the last shift and try to focus on that."
Not everything is plain sailing, though. NHL-based forward Tomas Kopecky has been ruled out of the tournament due to a concussion sustained against Slovenia, further depleting the firepower of a roster that has been hit by injuries and the decision to leave veteran forward Miroslav Satan back in Bratislava.
Head coach Vladimir Vujtek, a Czech plotting his homeland's downfall, is looking back to the teams' last meeting in a knock-out game - the 2012 World Championship semi-final in Helsinki which saw the Slovaks progress thanks to a 3-1 victory. "Back then we got our preparation spot on for the game," he recalled. "Now you've seen how we got it almost right for the Russia game; maybe it's time to do it again."
Vujtek also suggested that the Czechs would be a more beatable opponent than the Russians or the Finns, who would likely have been lying in wait if Slovakia had failed to snatch a point in defeat in its final group game.
The Czechs, meanwhile, have been left to lament a lack of goals and a toothless power play during the competition so far. A 1-0 loss to Swizterland pushed the team down to third in Group C, with goalie Jonas Hiller frustrating his rivals.
And captain Tomas Plekanec was perhaps the most frustrated of all after missing four goal-scoring opportunities including one which rattled the goalframe. "Maybe I was missing a bit of luck, but hopefully I'm saving my goals for more important games," the forward said. He also acknowledged that the roster was perhaps lacking a truly clinical goal scorer, but refused to blame misfortune alone. "We're getting clear chances in front of the goalie and not putting them away," he said. "When the chances come, you need to know where to put them."
The power play has also been underwhelming, with the Czechs mustering just one goal from 12 numerical advantages, the second worst return in the tournament. "Maybe we need to shoot more," reflected Plekanec. Or maybe a change of approach would help. Reports from Monday's training session suggest that Plekanec, Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky will be joined by Radko Gudas and Martin Hanzal, while a second special team of Tomas Kaberle, Jakub Voracek, David Krejci, Ales Hemsky and Milan Michalek is also mooted.
The coach of the Czech roster, Alois Hadamczik, still believes his team can produce more than it has shown so far. "Every game has been different, but our play has been good apart from scoring goals. I believe that will come.
"The team is playing well, and apart from the first period against Sweden we've been having a good tournament."
The Czechs and Slovaks meet on Tuesday at Shayba Arena. Face-off time is 9pm local time, 6 pm CET.
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