U.S.-Czech Republic Olympic Hockey Preview: Goaltending Gives Americans Edge

T.J. OshieTeam USA resumes its pursuit of the Olympic men’s hockey gold medal Wednesday when it plays the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals in Sochi.

The Americans were the most impressive side in the preliminary round as the highest-scoring team (15 goals) with a tournament-leading plus-11 goal differential. Goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller also played well and made clutch late-game saves when needed.

Team USA took eight of a possible nine points in the preliminary round and sandwiched blowout victories over Slovakia and Slovenia with a thrilling shootout win over Russia.

Let’s examine the USA-Czech Republic matchup in depth before they hit the ice Wednesday at noon ET.

Tale of the Tape

Team Record Last Game GF GA Leading Scorer
USA 2-1-0-0 W, 5-1 vs. SLO 15 4 Phil Kessel – 7 PTS
CZE 2-0-0-2 W, 5-3 vs. SVK 11 10 Marek Zidlicky – 4 PTS

Forwards

The Czech Republic has a formidable top-six forward group with talented playmakers such as centers David Krejci, Tomas Plekanec, as well as wingers Jaromir Jagr and Jakub Voracek. The Czech power play showed impressive improvement Tuesday when it scored two of the team’s first three goals, thanks to quick puck movement and clean zone entries. The concern is that their offense struggled in the preliminary round against quality goaltenders. Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist gave up just two goals in the first game of the tournament, and Switzerland’s Jonas Hiller shut out the Czechs in the second game of the group stage.

The Czech Republic doesn’t have the scoring depth to play from behind against a high-powered American offense that is four lines deep and features a ton of skill. Second-line winger Phil Kessel leads the tournament with seven points, and his four goals are the second-most in Sochi. Linemates James Van Riemsdyk and Joe Pavelski have chipped in a combined eight points themselves.

Where the Americans have a huge advantage over the Czechs is the bottom six. Max Pacioretty, David Backes, Ryan Callahan and shootout hero T.J. Oshie give head coach Dan Bylsma tremendous scoring depth. All of these players would play a top-six role in the Czech lineup.

Defense

The Americans have an edge on the blue line with two shut-down pairings in Ryan McDonagh-Ryan Suter and Paul Martin-Brooks Orpik. Here’s how Dan Bylsma set up his pairings in Tuesday’s practice.

There’s also a lot of skill and speed in this group. Cam Fowler and Kevin Shattenkirk create chances in the attacking zone with their play-making skill and powerful shots from the point, and they start breakouts cleanly with quick, crisp passes. This defensive corps is well-suited for the wider Olympic ice and isn’t afraid to jump into the play and generate offense.

The Czech blue line is spearheaded by three veteran offensive defensemen — Marek Zidlicky, Tomas Kaberle and Zbynek Michalek. Zidlicky leads the team in scoring with four points and has been effective at the point on the power play with Kaberle. This defensive group lacks physical players, speed and elite defensive talent, but it has above-average offensive skill and veteran savvy. Luckily for the Americans, there is no shut-down stay-at-home defenseman to worry about.

Goaltending

American netminder Jonathan Quick will be the Czech’s toughest test of the Olympics, and he has been stellar with a 2-0 record, 1.44 goals against average and .944 save percentage. He also performed at a high level in the shootout against Russia. Quick has risen to the occasion in big games throughout his NHL career as a Stanley Cup champion, and his performance in Sochi suggests he will do the same over the next week.

Ondrej Pavelec, who’s likely to start for the Czechs, is 2-1 with a .923 save percentage and 2.01 GAA. He stopped 29 of 32 shots in Tuesday’s qualification-round victory over Slovakia. He’ll have to be near perfect for the Czech Republic to win this game because it’d be hard for this team to overcome an early deficit against a deeper American squad.

Prediction

The Americans shouldn’t have any problems defeating the Czech Republic, especially if they stay out of the penalty box and play the game 5-on-5. The U.S. also will have two full days of rest entering this game, while the Czechs might battle fatigue after spending a lot of energy to defeat Slovakia on Tuesday.

If Team USA plays a fast, physical game, it will wear down the Czechs and cruise into the semifinals, where Canada might be waiting for an epic rematch of the 2010 gold medal game.

Pick: U.S. wins 4-1

Yardbarker

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