Olympic playoff preview: Czechs and Slovaks put star power on display

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The Game: No. 7 Czech Republic vs. No. 10 Slovakia. Tuesday, 12 p.m. ET at Shayba Arena.

How they got here: The Czechs had a dysfunctional opening round, winning just one in three tries amidst questionable player selection (see here), illness (see here and here) and a curious distribution of ice time (see here). But for as dysfunctional as the Czechs were, the Slovaks were equally disappointing — hammered 7-1 by the U.S. in the opener, then stunned by minnows Slovenia in their second game. Slovakia did manage to save face with a good effort against Russia in the finale, losing 1-0 in a shootout.

Who’s hot: Marek Zidlicky has been a major bright spot for the Czechs. He’s playing staggering minutes (26:28 TOI per game) and leads the team in points, with three. Zidlicky also shares the team goalscoring lead with Jaromir Jagr (two).

For the Slovaks, it’s goalie Jan Laco. Laco’s story is pretty neat — he came into the tournament as Slovakia’s No. 3 netminder, behind St. Louis’ Jaroslav Halak and Montreal’s Peter Budaj. But after Halak and Budaj (Halak especially) played poorly in the opening two games, head coach Vladimir Vujtek made the bold decision to play Laco, who didn’t even dress in the first two contests, against Russia in the final group affair.

Laco responded by stopping all 36 shots faced in regulation and overtime, before losing in the shootout. He’ll reportedly start against the Czechs.

Who’s not: Take your pick, really. There are a number of underachievers from both sides, but we’ll focus on a pair of forwards. For the Slovaks, Marian Hossa has worked extremely hard but has no goals and just one assist to show for it. For the Czechs, former 35-goal man Milan Michalek has been invisible, going pointless over three games while averaging a little over 12 minutes a night.

X-Factor: Star power. Mentioned in the headline, but it bears repeating — of the four opening playoff games, Czech Republic-Slovakia boasts significantly more NHLers that the rest, with some true stars in play. This is a key factor in single elimination games. The Slovaks haven’t been good defensively this tournament, but couldn’t that change in one night by, say, playing Chara close to 30 minutes?