The U.S. Olympic Men’s Hockey Team will meet the Czech Republic in the quarterfinal Wednesday at noon ET on USA Network. The game will also stream live on NBCOlympic.com, so if you’re at work and you have a cool boss, you have hockey.
This is going to be an interesting quarterfinal match-up as the Czechs have just enough skill to cause some concern defensively for Team USA. On the other hand, this also seems like the kind of game the U.S. forward crop should be able to generate quite a bit of quality chances.
In watching the Czechs against Slovakia, they played a far more open style than even the Russians did, which they may have to alter slightly considering the speed factor for the U.S. However, it is unlikely to see the Czechs employ a true trap-style defense. That means more time and space for the American forwards and a better opportunity to get pucks into the offensive zone and create some sustained pressure.
More on the Czechs
SWE 4 – CZE 2
CZE 4 – LAT 2
SUI 1 – CZE 3
CZE 5 – SVK 3
Marek Zidlicky – 4 GP, 2-2–4
Tomas Plekanec – 4 GP, 1-3–4
Jaromir Jagr – 4 GP, 2-1–3
Ondrej Pavelec – 3 GP, 2-0-0-1, 2.01 GAA, .923 SV%
This team has struggled to score consistently, but as they showed against Slovakia, they’ll take advantage of any kind of space they’re given. David Krejci and Tomas Plekanec have enough skill and speed to keep defenses on their heels, while Roman Cervenka showed he can be an offensive threat as well. Then there’s the wily veteran Jaromir Jagr, who has been consistently one of the Czech Republic’s best players. They have weapons to be aware of.
The Czech defense has been adequate in this tournament. They don’t put a lot of fear into teams, but there’s a lot of big ice experience back there and they’re not afraid to get physical. Marek Zidlicky has been the top D on the team, playing an average of 26-plus minutes through the first four games and posting four points. Zbynek Michalek has also been a force from the blue line. Still, the U.S. should be able to find ways through this group without a lot of problems.
If there’s one area where the U.S. is clearly better than the Czechs, it is in net. Jonathan Quick has been strong in the tournament so far, while Ondrej Pavelec has been shaky at times and doesn’t have a really strong track record in his NHL career of being an adequate No. 1 goalie. Not only that, but the U.S. will see Pavelec (more than likely) on the tail end of back-to-back games.
This stat is rather telling:
Relevant for tomorrow’s game. RT @tcghockey: Pavelec’s career NHL record in back-to-backs: 4-17-0, 4.22 GAA, .866 save % on 575 SA. Yikes.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) February 18, 2014
The U.S. has been generating an average of 31 shots on net per game. They have to get on Pavelec early and challenge him throughout the game, especially since he’s coming back from a game that ended up closer than it should have been in the qualifier.
Rebounds will be there and the U.S. has the snipers like Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane who will see any hole Pavelec gives them.
More on USA
The U.S. has proven they have the speed to skate with anyone in the tournament. They can defend as well as any team as well. Then there’s Jonathan Quick in net, who has looked every bit the No. 1 Team USA needs him to be. He will start for the third time against the Czechs.
Looking back at the Slovakia and Russia games are probably the most helpful in determining how the U.S. is going to have to play this game. Team USA was able to open things up against the Slovakians, which could do nothing to slow the Americans down. Meanwhile, the Russians gave a pretty good look at how to clog things up and take the U.S. off its game 5-on-5.
One thing the U.S. did very well in the Russia game in particular was manage the puck and that’s what they’ll have to do again. The Czechs can be just as opportunistic as the Russians and they’ll be hoping to make a living off of U.S. mistakes. They jump passing lanes well and they’re an experienced group that knows how to use the big ice to their advantage.
As good as they were at limiting mistakes with the puck, the U.S. started to struggle in entering the zone against Russia. It seemed the Russians were as committed to defense, which is not necessarily typical of their play. They often were able to get at least four players back on their own blue line to make zone entries really tough for the U.S., a team that thrives in transition.
Slovenia actually did this well, too. It forced the Americans into a blueline turnover or a dump-in with loss of possession, which is something the U.S. will have to try to avoid.
The more Team USA is forced to play dump and chase, the less success they have five-on-five. I don’t think the Czechs have the personnel to play that style of defense, though. The forwards get back, but they don’t have the speed to skate with the U.S. in transition, at least not throughout the lineup. That puts a lot of pressure on Pavelec to make that first save.
Team USA has to get numbers up the ice quickly to generate offense and put the Czech’s fairly average defense on its heels early.
Having two days to prepare for this game, and probably focusing on the Czechs, the U.S. is going to know where it can push the pace and when to ease off.
Based on the lines from practice Tuesday, the projected lineup is going to look similar to the Russia game. That means the U.S. will go back to its two shut-down pairings, with a puck-moving pair and they’ll probably mix and match.
The big change is the likelihood of moving Zach Parise to a line with Patrick Kane and Ryan Kesler. Team USA has that great scoring line of James van Riemsdyk, Joe Pavelski and Phil Kessel, but they need more from the depth.
Having two true scoring lines, plus a really solid third scoring unit and a more grind-it-out line with David Backes centering Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan balances out the U.S. lineup.
Some of the keys for the U.S. include getting off to a fast start. The U.S. wants to put the Czechs in an uncomfortable position and there’s no better way to do that than getting an early lead. Not letting Pavelec get into any sort of rhythm would go a long way to taking the Czechs out of the game fairly early.
All lines have to be committed to playing at both ends of the ice and particularly getting to loose pucks, playing the body and taking away any kind of space for the Czech forwards. The U.S. can play a physical game in this one and not getting burned as much.
The Czech forwards are too skilled to let them roam, so getting on top of them early and often will really but a damper on their offense.
If the U.S. plays the way it did in the preliminary round, there’s not a lot of ways they can lose this game. Taking the Czechs seriously and committing to playing the way they were built, with speed and puck possession among the priorities, should lead to a positive result.
TEAM USA PROJECTED LINEUP
Lineup is not official. Based on lines from Tuesday practice.
James van Riemsdyk – Joe Pavelski – Phil Kessel
Zach Parise – Ryan Kesler – Patrick Kane
Dustin Brown – David Backes – Ryan Callahan
Max Pacioretty – Paul Stastny – T.J. Oshie
Ryan Suter – Ryan McDonagh
Cam Fowler – Kevin Shattenkirk
Brooks Orpik – Paul Martin
Scratched: Derek Stepan, Justin Faulk, Jimmy Howard
Check back for official lanes when available.