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World junior championship: Czech Republic looking to keep pace with big guns

Buzzing The Net

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Kitchener Rangers forward Radek Faksa, pictured here at the 2012 WJC in Calgary, is playing in his third world junior. (CP / Jeff McIntosh)

Kitchener Rangers forward Radek Faksa, pictured here at the 2012 WJC in Calgary, is playing in his third world …

GROUP A: CZECH REPUBLIC

2013 Finish: 5th

2013 Record: 2-1-0-1, 12 GF/10 GA

The Czechs will be lacking some major talent up front at the 2014 World Junior Championships in Malmö, Swe., but the players believe they have a great chance to medalif they bear down and perform better defensively.

“We have a couple guys who are older, and other than that we have a young team,” said team captain Petr Sidlik, a big defenceman who skates for the Victoriaville Tigres in the QMJHL. “It’s going to be tough for us and we have a tough group to play, but nothing is impossible. If we can play tough and good defensively, we can beat anyone there. We just have to skate and stick to the plan that we’ll have.”

“I think we could be a great team,” Medicine Hat Tigers netminder Marek Langhamer said. “We hope to play well together as a team and play well defensively. We don’t have as much skill as the United States or Canada, but we can play well as a unit.”

“We just have to play relaxed and like we can,” added Radek Faksa, a Dallas Stars first rounder suiting up for his third WJC.

Like past years, a majority of the Czech players come from overseas. 13 of the players play in their native Czech Republic, while nine come from the CHL, scattered among the three Canadian leagues. Only three players are drafted by NHL teams: Faksa, blueliner Jan Kostalek and netminder Langhamer.

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Victoriaville Tigres blueliner Petr Sidlik will captain the team from the back end. (CP / Ghyslain Bergeron)

Victoriaville Tigres blueliner Petr Sidlik will captain the team from the back end. (CP / Ghyslain Bergeron)

Faksa will be the undisputed leader of the offence on a Czech team bringing less bite than last season up front. Gone are forwards Martin Frk, Dmitrij Jaskin and NHL-bound Tomas Hertl. The lion’s share will fall to Faksa, who welcomes the challenge.

“I am a leader this time,” he said. “I have to work hard and play well since the older guys are gone, but it’ll be fun. I’m used to being relied on to play well. I like it.”

Coming with Faksa up front will be a few draft-eligible forwards with something to prove. David Pastrnak, Ondrej Kase and returnee Jakub Vrana will bring youthful exuberance, while Czech wunderkind Pavel Zacha, eligible in 2015, will make his WJC debut.

Zacha, 16, has seen a majority of his time in the top Czech league this season, suiting up for 29 games with Liberec Bili Tygri HC, earning seven points playing against men. Zacha may be young, but he’s 6-foot-3 and weighs in at 190 pounds.

“[The young guys] just need to relax and play their game,” Faksa said. “If you can slow the play down and calm yourself, you’ll play better. The younger guys are all good players.”

Defensively, the group will be led by returnees Sidlik and Jan Stencel, along with Winnipeg pick Kostalek and Michal Plutnar.

“I have experience with the tournament so I know what’s coming,” team captain Sidlik said. “The tournament was perfect for me. I like to play with pressure. It was a great experience and a lot of fun.”

One thing the Czechs aren’t on D is tall. Sidlik and Stencel, who plays for Vitkovice in the Czech Extraliga, are both 5’9”. Kostalek lists at six feet even. Only three of their eight defenders are over six feet tall.

“We’re missing the skills guys we had last year, but we have to play more defensively and we can play more as a team. If we stick to the plan and skate well we’ll be good.”

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Medicine Hat goalkeeper Marek Langhamer is one of three 19-year-old goalies looking for playing time. (CP / Larry MacDougal)

Medicine Hat goalkeeper Marek Langhamer is one of three 19-year-old goalies looking for playing time. (CP / Larry …

In goal, the Czechs bring three 19-year-old goalies with three different leagues of experience. Daniel Dolejs comes from Vitkovice in the Czech Extraliga, where he’s played the most games out of all netminders on the roster. Dominik Hrachovina is under control of Tappara in Finland, while Marek Langhamer is in his second season with the Medicine Hat Tigers.

“I know the other goalies,” Langhamer said. “I’ve played with them and against them before. I haven’t seen them in a while, but it will be easy to get back to it.”

Langhamer added that he doesn’t see the ice size as an issue for him.

“We [had] a week or so to practice, so there’s enough time to adjust,” he said. “I grew up with that so it’s just getting used to it again.”

All three will be in a dog fight to start, with Langhamer and Dolejs in the lead. Dolejs brings his recent experience with the big ice and playing in a men’s league, while Langhamer brings his draft pedigree, his .916 save percentage with fourth-seed Medicine Hat.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Forward Radek Faksa (Kitchener Rangers, OHL) Faksa will be the only player on the team in his third WJC, and his experience will be a major benefit. He suited up for the Czechs in Calgary and Edmonton, and in Ufa last year. Faksa has been close to a-point-a-game in each of his three OHL seasons, including 25 points in 29 games this year. Listed at 6’3”, 210, the Dallas pick has worked hard on his defensive game and being a two-way player. He will easily be the Czechs’ top line center this go around.

Defenceman Petr Sidlik (Victoriaville Tigres, QMJHL) Sidlik is a two-way defenceman and captain of his junior team, bringing the letter to Malmö. He brings a stable calm to the blue line, and along with Stencel and Kostalek, will lead the offensive charge from the back end. Sidlik had 42 points in 55 games last season seeing powerplay time, and will see some here as well. He’s in his third season in the QMJHL. One weakness to Sidlik’s game is his proneness to taking a bad penalty or two and killing momentum.

Forward Jakub Vrana (Linkopings HC, SHL) Vrana will dress in his second world junior at only 17-years-old. He moved to Sweden at 15 under the Linkopings system and has seen time dressed with the pro club this season. He also has 21 points in 19 games in the J20 SuperElit, Sweden’s top junior circuit. Vrana had one assist in six games last season, and will have more responsibility this time around, as well as impressing in his draft-eligible WJC.

Forward Pavel Zacha (Liberec, Czech Extraliga) Zacha will try and follow Vrana’s footsteps in showing well in his first WJC at 16. While Vrana had the benefit of playing with a deep team last season, Zacha will have to show more than Vrana did last season for the Czechs to have success. He has seven points in 29 games in the top Czech pro league this season, and handles himself well against men.

MUST WIN GAME: SLOVAKIA (Dec. 31, 7:30 am ET)

The Czechs’ schedule plays out that they will be aiming for third place come elimination time. They are likely to lose to the United States and Canada, and likely to win against Germany. That leaves the game against Slovakia on the 27th, which could go either way. It is an intense rivalry game with deep political roots and an important one for both clubs. It could determine third place and an easier quarter final matchup. The last time these two teams met was in 2012, when Faksa opened the scoring in a 5-2 win to secure fifth place.

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