A disappointing preliminary round highlighted by an upset loss to Slovenia meant Team USA would have to play an extra game just to make the Men’s Ice Hockey Quarterfinals in PyeongChang. But now that the Americans have won that game — a convincing 5-1 win over Slovakia — playing for a medal doesn’t seem like such a long shot anymore.
While the Czech Republic is unbeaten at 3-0 in these Olympics, including an upset win over Canada, it also struggled to put away the Koreans in a 2-1 win to open the tournament. Of the possible quarterfinal opponents, the Czechs are about the best matchup the Americans could have hoped for from a style standpoint. Team USA is built to win with speed, which is not the kind of game the Czechs like to play.
The Americans, who hadn’t played a single game together before the Olympics began, have beaten Slovakia twice and lost their two other games. But they insist they are playing better each game and hope to be hitting their stride at the right time.
United States vs. Czech Republic
Faceoff: Tuesday, Feb. 20 at 10:10 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CNBC
Three Things to Watch
1. The kids are alright
Team USA brought a handful of college players to go with the old pros playing in European leagues, and it is starting to pay off. Harvard's Ryan Donato scored twice in the 5–1 win over Slovakia, giving him four goals in four games. Troy Terry of Denver University added three assists playing on a line with Donato and former NHLer Mark Arcobello. Jordan Greenway of Boston University has scored just once but at 6’6” and over 225 pounds he brings the kind of size and speed the U.S. is lacking among its older players.
2. Zapolski heating up?
After allowing a couple soft goals in the preliminary round, United States goalie Ryan Zapolski played his best game of the Olympics in the 5–1 win over Slovakia. It will be especially important for Zapolski to be strong early. With the Americans playing for the second day in a row against a rested Czech team, an early deficit could spell the end of the tournament for Team USA. The Czechs love to slow the game down and just grind it out once they get a lead. On the other hand, if Zapolski holds down the fort until the U.S. can find its legs and get the lead, it will force the Czechs to open up their game.
3. Goaltending again key for Czechs
Twenty years ago, the Czech Republic rode its goaltender to an Olympic gold medal. Could history repeat? No one is suggesting Pavel Francouz is Dominik Hasek, but he’s done everything asked of him so far in 2018 — including slamming the door on the Canadians in a shootout. While it is doubtful most North American fans have heard of Francouz, he is not a total unknown. He leads the KHL in save percentage and has stopped 66 of 70 shots (.943 save percentage) so far at the Olympics. Francouz benefits playing behind a team that can shut opponents down, but he also has little margin for error because the Czechs are not built to win high-scoring games.
A chance to play for a medal — and possibly avenge a 4–0 preliminary loss to the Russians — may be enough to spark the U.S to victory. But it’s more likely that the fresher team will find a way to grind out a win and advance.