By Sean Hartnett
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The United States wanted to set a tone in the preliminary round of the Olympic ice hockey tournament for a reason.
The Americans knew the bye into the quarterfinals could prove to be a godsend. While they will still have to win three games in five days to capture the gold, they are in a decidedly better situation than what the Czech Republic faces.
The Americans and Czechs will do battle Wednesday for a spot in Friday’s semifinals, most likely against tournament favorite Canada. The Canadians are expected to have an even easier time with upstart Latvia on Wednesday.
The Czechs could be in for a rough go of it because they had to extend themselves Tuesday in a 5-3 victory over Slovakia. After jumping out to a four-goal lead, they crumbled and needed an empty netter to punch their ticket into the next round.
That likely will not bode well for elder statesmen Jaromir Jagr and Petr Nedved, who are both 42. Patrick Elias and Marek Zidlicky are 37, while Michal Rozsival and Tomas Kaberle are 35.
Speedsters Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane and others will cause all kinds of troubles for a Czech team that became increasingly winded and disorganized as Tuesday’s game went on. The Americans offer speed in waves. Even 6-foot-5, winger Blake Wheeler can move. The only one who really can’t is 33-year-old defenseman Brooks Orpik, but he makes up for it by being a physical, steadying presence.
The Czechs could be in for a torching by the Americans, who have been the most dominant and cohesive collection of stars in Sochi.
U.S. PLAYERS TO WATCH
Coming off a three-goal performance against Slovenia, winger Phil Kessel is firing on all cylinders. Kessel, playmaking center Joe Pavelski and power forward James Van Riemsdyk have formed one of the best lines of this tournament.
Kessel has stood out thanks to his highlight goals and clever, elusive play. He has a team-high seven points in three games. His explosive speed, dangling and shooting can cause havoc for any defense.
Ryan McDonagh and Ryan Suter have emerged as a true shutdown defense pairing that also possesses outstanding puck-moving qualities. They are also capable of transitioning quickly from defense to offense.
Even at 42, Jagr is one of the most difficult players in the world to move off the puck. It will be up to Suter and McDonagh to make life difficult for the Jagr, who is strong along the walls and still has a set of magic hands.
CZECH PLAYERS TO WATCH
Throughout the Olympics, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has played better than he has for the Winnipeg Jets, but his improved game will be put to the test by the Americans.
Keep in mind that Pavelec did not play in the Czechs’ 4-2 loss to Sweden to open the preliminary round. He’s never been tested on the Olympic stage by an opponent like the U.S., one that packs an enormous scoring punch.
Philadelphia Flyers winger Jakub Voracek tends to blow hot and cold. When he’s on his game, Voracek is a creative passer and an overall energy player. The Czechs will absolutely need Voracek to bring his A-game on Wednesday.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
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