Czech Republic out to prove doubters wrong at World Cup

The Czechs know the underdog role all too well and while they may be a World Cup of Hockey dark horse that won't stop them from trying to repeat international hockey history.

TORONTO — Las Vegas isn’t giving Team Czech Republic much respect at the World Cup of Hockey.

Listed as a 33-1 longshot to hoist the trophy, only Team Europe (50-1) offers steeper odds.

Maybe it’s the fact that the Czechs are in a tough group headlined by the United States and Canada. Or it could be the fact Jaromir Jagr declined his invitation and injuries to Tomas Hertl and David Krejci have cut into the team’s depth.

Either way, the Czechs have little to lose entering Saturday’s opener against Canada and they could use that to their advantage. They seem quite comfortable flying under the radar and impressed in pre-tournament wins over Russia and North America.

Teams who underestimate the Czechs do so at their peril.

"We’re more confident than we were at the beginning when everybody was saying that we’re underdogs," defenceman Roman Polak said after Friday’s practice at Air Canada Centre. "We could be a good surprise in the tournament and we can start tomorrow against Canada."

Tomas Plekanec led the way for the Czechs with three goals over three pre-tournament games. Ondrej Palat, Michal Kempny and Ales Hemsky also chipped in with three points apiece.

The blue line may be the weak link for the team with only four of the seven defenceman — Michal Kempny, Zbynek Michalek, Polak and Andrej Sustr — playing for NHL teams.

Petr Mrazek, Michal Neuvirth and Ondrej Pavelec are the three goalies on the 23-man roster. The starter has been advised but the team hasn’t announced who is getting the nod.

With names like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews on the stacked Canadian roster, the host side presents a stiff test for anyone.

"We cannot go in there second-guessing ourselves or having a losing attitude in our heads," said assistant coach Vinny Prospal. "We cannot play like that."

Canada won gold at the last two Olympic Games and won the World Cup when the tournament was last played in 2004.

"With Canada there is going to be lots of pressure on them for sure," Polak said. "Home building and everything, in Toronto. They’re going to be desperate to win. If (we) have a good start and maybe we score a goal (early), it could be a different story."

Forward Michael Frolik said the Czechs may not be the biggest or most physical group, but noted they have the ability to roll four solid lines.

"We’ve got nothing to lose," he said. "Just play hard, make sure we’re ready and go after them."

The Czechs reached the World Cup semifinals in 2004 and were eliminated in the quarter-finals at the 2014 Sochi Games. The Czechs won Olympic gold in 1998 at Nagano and are sixth in the latest IIHF world rankings.

"We’re here with the seven other teams in this tournament and as of right now, we have as good a chance as anybody else," Prospal said.

Notes: At close to even odds, Canada (10-11) is the favourite to retain its World Cup title, according to the Bodog sports betting website. The U.S. is next (6-1), followed by Russia (6.5-1), North America and Sweden (both 7-1) and Finland (14-1). … Czech forward Vladimir Sobotka was expected to be available after hurting his shoulder in a 4-3 loss to Russia in the pre-tournament opener.

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