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World Juniors: Jiri Kulich Steps Up for the Czechs

The Buffalo Sabres first-rounder was crucial in a quarterfinal win against Team USA, but he and his team are staying humble.
Jiri Kulich

EDMONTON - On a quarterfinal day that saw a number of near-upsets, the only underdog that did end up victorious was Czechia, as the team pulled off a 4-2 win against previously-undefeated Team USA. The Czechs were structured and smart with the puck, capitalizing on American mistakes and playing as a unit. The team had a number of heroes, from goalie Tomas Suchanek to captain Jan Mysak. But with three points - including an empty-net goal to salt away the win - Buffalo Sabres first-rounder Jiri Kulich did more than his share.

Kulich has been on a steady incline for a while now. The teen center spent last season in the Czech Extraliga with Karlovy Vary and playing in the pro ranks was a great learning experience.

"My game has grown mentally because last season I played with men," he said. "Physically, I'm a better skater, but the mental part was big."

Then he was named MVP of the world under-18s in the spring, where the Czechs finished fourth after getting knocked out in the semifinal by the Americans. Kulich captained that squad and pumped in nine goals in six games.

After being selected 28th overall by Buffalo this summer, Kulich has continued his solid play in Edmonton, but none of his points have loomed as large as the empty-netter against the Americans. With the Czechs clinging to a tenuous lead late in the third, Kulich jumped a passing route at the blueline and powered straight up the ice on a breakaway for an easy goal and his third point of the night. Well, it looked easy.

"I was a little bit scared," Kulich said. "Because I didn't want to miss the empty net."

While the Americans didn't play well for most of the game, they did turn up the heat in the third period and closed a 3-1 gap on a five-minute power play after the Czechs had failed to click on their own five-minute man advantage earlier in the period.

"It was so hard but every guy in the room believed," Kulich said. "That's more important. We play like one guy. And that was the plan - support. We have to believe and stay humble."

Now the Czechs get two cracks at a WJC medal - something they haven't won since 2005 when they took bronze in North Dakota. At one point in the tournament, that didn't look like much of a possibility. The Czechs lost to minnow Latvia in the round-robin and even though the Latvians ended up giving Sweden a hard time in the quarterfinal, the Czechs knew their fans hadn't been happy with their earlier performance. The Americans ended up paying the price.

"We learned a lesson against Latvia," Mysak said. "They wanted it more than us, so we lost. So we tried to do the same - we wanted it more, so we won."

Should the Czechs hope to take out another North American power, they're going to need Mysak and Kulich to once again be the leaders of this all-for-one squad - because Canada is up next in the semifinal. It's a daunting task, but the Czechs have their game plan. And as we saw in the quarterfinal against Team USA, they've got a game-breaker in Kulich.

"He had a great game," Mysak said. "He has a really good shot and he's a good skater so he's a success thanks to that. It's really good to play with him."

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