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World Juniors: Can the Czechs put it together in the medal round?

On paper, this team looked better than last year's surprise semifinalists. In reality, the 2019 tournament has been tough for the Czechs, who now have to hope they've found their groove for the medal round.

VANCOUVER - It’s a lot harder when they see you coming.

Last year, the Czechs stormed their way to the world junior semifinal thanks in large part to Carolina first-rounder Martin Necas and running mate Filip Zadina, who would score in bunches and electrify the crowds in Buffalo. Zadina was then drafted sixth overall in the summer by the Detroit Red Wings.

With Necas, Zadina, Colorado first-rounder Martin Kaut and goalie Jakub Skarek (New York Islanders) returning to the national squad for the 2019 edition of the world juniors, the Czechs appeared to have an even better team this year than last, but the round robin was underwhelming. True, losses to Canada and Russia were defensible, but needing overtime to dispose of the Swiss? Hmmm.

Most disturbingly, Zadina had no points heading into the final game of the round robin, while Necas had just one. In fact, the Czechs were tied with Kazakhstan in tournament offense with four goals apiece.

Coach Vaclav Varada had yet to reunite the Zadina-Necas-Kaut line, despite having better depth this year in the form of names like Jachym Kondelik (Nashville), Matej Pekar (Buffalo) and Jakub Lauko (Boston). And Skarek barely played, even though he had been nearly unbeatable this year while playing for the Lahti Pelicans in Finland’s Liiga. Overall, the situation seemed disjointed.

Denmark proved to be the salve, however. The Czechs played the game they needed against the overmatched Danes, putting away bang-bang precision goals on the power play and getting some big saves from Lukas Dostal (Anaheim) in net. The end result was a 4-0 victory that saw Zadina get his first point. Kaut was the team’s best player, helping with the offense but also making great hustle plays, like breaking up an icing and killing penalties. So, is this team on the right track?

“I think so, because we’re scoring,” Kaut said. “That’s very important.”

But has this team found its groove yet? Because now their next game is single elimination, so there’s no more time for finding themselves.

“It’s hard to say,” Lauko said. “Our game isn’t perfect, we have a lot of space to improve and have been making a lot of mistakes. We had big expectations before the tournament and we’re trying to fulfill them. In the quarterfinal, we will be ready to do our best.”

For Varada, getting big performances from his top guys (Zadina, Necas, Kaut) will be crucial going forward, even though he knows the spotlight is shining more brightly on them.

“We’re talking to them all the time,” Varada said. “We need them. Even when they’re not scoring goals, they have to do the other things to help us and lead the team. Who else should lead the team, but your key players?”

Personally, I thought this team could contest for a medal before the tournament started. I still think there’s a chance, though we’ll need to see the 2018 versions of Zadina and Necas. If Dostal is the guy in net, he’ll have to be huge. Varada wants his defense to get pucks in deep when they’re on the offensive blueline and he thought his team has been losing too many pucks down low.

In a strange reversal, the pressure may actually dissipate now that the Czechs will have to fight through the medal round as a lower seed. And they don’t seem to mind the designation.

“We will fight for that last match; it’s winner take all,” Varada said. “We are going to be underdogs and that’s our position. We will fight through it.”

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