MINSK, Belarus - If Team USA can topple Jaromir Jagr and the Czech Republic tomorrow afternoon in Minsk, it will take a huge leap forward toward winning a second consecutive world championship medal, something it hasn’t accomplished in 64 years.
“I think we’re a very good team to be honest and we’re very capable of winning the tournament,” said U.S. defenseman Seth Jones, following a practice Tuesday afternoon. “Anything can happen in the medal round.”
Stopping the 42-year-old Jagr – who leads the Czech Republic in tournament scoring with four goals and three assists – will be among the top priorities for Team USA.
“Try to put a body on him,” Jones said about keys to limiting Jagr’s chances around the net. “I’ll try to use my size against him, he’s obviously a very big guy and very strong with the puck, so you try to contain him to the outside.”
U.S. goaltender Tim Thomas – who will start his eighth consecutive game in Minsk – says that Jagr’s biggest weapon is his desire.
“It’s his desire to win and he comes to compete every night,” Thomas said. “When someone has that type of hunger, you have to be ready to match it.”
There are numerous similarities between these two teams: loads of youth, a 40-year-old plus leader who has hoisted the Stanley Cup (Jagr & Thomas), and a thrilling, young, scoring phenom (Johnny Gaudreau and Thomas Hertl). Moreover, the two countries recently met at the quarterfinal at the Sochi Olympics, the U.S. eliminating the Czechs, 5-2.
U.S. head coach Peter Laviolette was an assistant in Sochi and also at the helm behind the bench at the 2004 World Championship in Prague, leading the team to a bronze medal including a dramatic quarterfinal shootout victory over the Czechs.
Team USA (4-1-0-2; W-OTW-OTL-L) enters the quarterfinal contest at Chizhovka Arena coming off consecutive victories over Kazakhstan, Finland and Germany, while the Czech Republic (2-2-2-1) has also won two in a row.
“I’m pleased with the progress that we’ve made and we’ve had to win some big hockey games,” Laviolette said of Team USA at the tournament. “We’re pleased that we’re here in the crossover round, but not satisfied and we want to go further in this tournament.”
With his sensational, highlight-reel, four-point performance in the win over Germany, the 20-year-old Gaudreau leads the tournament in assists with eight, while also becoming the leading scorer for the U.S. with ten points (2-8). Nineteen-year-old Jones is tops among all defenseman in scoring at the world championship with nine points (2-7).
Team USA – the youngest team in the tournament with an average age of under 25 – has been dangerous offensively tallying 27 goals in seven games, third overall behind only Russia and Canada.
Six of the seven contests the Czechs have played in have been decided by one goal (and the seventh by two goals). To add to the drama, considering that Jagr recently became the NHL’s all-time leader with 119 game-winning goals.
The Jagr-led Czechs have only five NHL players on their roster. Another five are teammates on Lev Praha, the Kontinental Hockey League franchise that was just one victory away from winning the Gagarin Cup last month.
Team USA boasts the top power play of the tournament, converting 10 of 36 chances (27.78%) and considering that the Czechs are the fourth most penalized team in Minsk, the man-advantage could be key.
“Coach (Phil) Housley has done a tremendous job putting two power play units together so quickly,” said Gaudreau about the U.S. assistant coach. “We put a lot of time and effort on the power play and he’s a great coach.”
“We’re moving the puck around pretty well and we have some skilled guys out there who know how to score and make plays,” Jones said. “It’s definitely clicking.”
The last world championship meeting between the two nations came in Bratislava, Slovakia, in 2011 when the Czechs won 4-0 in a quarterfinal round game.
The victor of Thursday’s showdown at Chizhovka Arena will advance to meet the winner of Canada-Finland in a semifinal, Saturday at Minsk Arena.
“It’s obviously do-or-die now,” Jones said. “We have to play A-plus hockey from here on out.”
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