Canada faces first test vs. Czech Republic

Originally Published: January 1, 2005
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The ease with which Canada has steamrolled through the World Junior Championship has bordered on the embarrassing. That fact is undeniable.

Marek Schwarz
The Czechs will need Marek Schwarz to be sharp against Team Canada.
What isn't so clear is whether a team that is 4-0 and has outscored opponents 32-5 is that dominant or whether group-mates Finland, Sweden, Germany and Slovakia are that bad. Of the four teams in the semifinals, only Canada hails from Group A.

The answer will be delivered Sunday when Canada faces a big, talented Czech Republic team that has gotten better as the tournament has unfolded. The Czechs (4-1) earned their date with Canada by dominating Finland 3-0 on Saturday.

Although many feel the Russians represent Canada's biggest obstacle in capturing its first gold medal since 1997, the Czechs' blend of size and skill should match up well against a Canadian team facing its first true challenge with a lineup depleted by injury and illness.

One of Canada's top defenseman Cam Barker, the third overall pick by the Chicago Blackhawks in last year's NHL draft, was sent back to Winnipeg on Friday after he was diagnosed with mononucleosis. Forward Jeremy Colliton, a second-round pick by the Islanders in 2003, will be unavailable with a knee injury.

Head coach Brent Sutter will have six defensemen at his disposal, with Brent Seabrook returning to action Sunday in spite of a shoulder injury that kept him out of one game. The loss of Barker is a blow, but Canada still possesses a deep, physical, defensive corps led by Calgary Flames prospect Dion Phaneuf, who has four assists and leads the team with 12 penalty minutes (some of which appeared to have been assessed for simply hitting opponents too hard).

Czech head coach Alois Hadamczik joked that he was going to stay up all night contemplating a way to beat the Canadians and later quipped through an interpreter he was thinking of using two goalies. But there is about the Czechs a quiet confidence.

"Canada's the favorite entering the game. But it's what's at the end of the game that matters," Hadamczik said.

"I wouldn't say [there's] intimidation, I would say maybe a little respect. We know they're good. We have to play with respect against them but we're going to play hard," added Czech captain Petr Vrana.

The Czechs have 12 players who currently skate in the Canadian Hockey League, so familiarity with the aggressive style employed by Canada should not be a total surprise. Offensively, they are led by Vrana's linemate, Florida Panthers prospect Rostislav Olesz, who leads the team with nine points. Olesz gave the Czechs a 2-0 lead early in the third period Saturday with his sixth goal of the tournament, a nifty shorthanded effort through a Finnish defender and over the shoulder of netminder Tuukka Rask.

Marek Schwarz, the 17th pick overall by the St. Louis Blues at last year's draft, gives the Czechs a potential edge in goaltending over Canada's Jeff Glass, a third-round pick of the Ottawa Senators last year who is playing in his first World Junior Championship.

"We can beat anyone," Vrana said. "In this tournament you can win [or] you can lose against anyone. We'll try out best tomorrow and hope for the best."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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