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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Czechs Tiptoe Toward World Crown

ST. PETERSBURG -- Even though they are the Olympic champions, the Czechs have once again managed to sneak up on the opposition, positioning themselves for a second successive World Hockey Championships crown.

While Russia has been grabbing the spotlight with its star-studded team's failure to advance and the Americans with some superb play, once again the Czechs have gone quietly along their business, winning five matches and suffering a single loss on the way to the quarterfinals.

The Czechs, who have shown they can hold up without longtime coach Ivan Hlinka - the mastermind behind the nation's recent successes - will meet dark horse Latvia in the quarterfinals.

Playing in just its fourth world championship since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Latvia upset the heavily favored Russians 3-2 in the second round before tying the United States 3-3.

The Czechs' national team has been unfailingly steady over recent years largely due to the fact it does not count on a massive import of NHL talent to boost its caliber.

With just four NHL players on the squad and Josef Augusta replacing Hlinka behind the bench, the Czechs won all their opening-round matches against Norway, Japan and Canada, while defeating Italy and Slovakia in the second. Their only loss came at the hands of Finland in the second round, in a rematch of last year's final.

The Czechs are a deep, experienced team with three members of the Olympic gold-medal-winning squad, Pavel Patera, Martin Prochazka and Jiri Dopita, pulling on the country's jersey again.

The United States will also benefit from its players' experience, with 10 players having previously competed at world championships, three others in juniors worlds and Steve Konowalchuk having helped lead the United States to the title at the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996.

The Americans will face tough Slovakia in the round of eight, a team with seven NHL players that has shown it can put up a tough fight.

The Slovakians went undefeated in the opening round, beating Austria and Italy before tying Finland 2-2.

In a tougher second round, the Slovakians thumped Norway 9-1 before losing to nemesis Czech Republic. With both teams having already secured quarterfinal berths, Slovakia narrowly lost 4-3 to Canada in final second-round play.

"We've got a challenge in Slovakia, that's for sure,'' said Vancouver Canucks' forward Darby Hendrickson, making his fifth appearance at the world championships. "We've got to do the same things we've done since the start of the tournament. And that's play hard. And count on [Montreal Canadiens' Jose] Theodore, because our goaltending has been big.

"But we've got to play solid defensively and when we get our chances, get hungry.''

Canada will face Switzerland, another surprise quarterfinalist.

The Canadians, who as usual have gotten stronger as the tournament progresses, have shown they can perform under pressure, saving themselves from near elimination in the second round.

The Canadians barely scraped into the second round with only one win in the preliminaries, suffering a shocking 4-3 loss to Norway before succumbing 2-1 to the Czechs.

Facing a must-win situation in the second round, the Canadians finally got their discipline problems under control to slowly climb back into contention, solidly defeating Finland 5-1 and Italy 6-0, before beating Slovakia.

Despite their lucky draw, the Canadians vow they will not take the tiny alpine nation lightly.

"We've seen some strange things happen here,'' said Theodore. "Switzerland beat Russia and tied the United States. And we lost to Norway.

"We can't let our guard down. It's knockout in the quarterfinals. There are no more chances.''

The Canadians have exercised their right to switch a maximum five players on their roster starting from the quarterfinal. The team brought on Martin Lapointe, Joe Murphy and Scott Draper of the Detroit Red Wings, who were eliminated in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

In the toughest quarterfinal draw, Finland will face 1998 world champion Sweden.