Ales Kotalik knows the Czech Republic will be frenzied during the Olympics. His countrymen will be watching every second of the hockey tournament, passionately shouting for a gold medal to accompany the one earned in 1998. Although Canada gets most of the ink because of its depth and defending champ status, many feel the Czech Republic is the Olympic favorite.
That's why it hurt so immensely when Kotalik learned he wasn't on the team. He remembered the hero's welcome in Prague after the last victory, and he set a goal to make this year's team. It wasn't just a goal -- it was his only goal.
"Only goal for me this season was to be good enough to make the Olympic spot, and I didn't do it, for whatever reason," the Buffalo Sabres forward said Monday. "But right now, I just have team goals. This team is great, very strong inside, and we're going great. We want to keep going and show even more in the postseason."
Kotalik takes a five-game points streak into the Bell Centre tonight, when Buffalo faces Montreal and tries to extend its five-game winning streak.
Montreal's McGill University may be the birthplace of hockey, but Czech natives also have a tremendous passion for the game. Soccer rules the summertime, Kotalik said, but hockey is the rage in winter.
"Hockey's very big, especially when those big Olympic tournaments are on," Kotalik said. "In the summertime there's going to be world championships in soccer, so all the focus is going to go on soccer. When the world championships in hockey or the Olympic tournaments are on, the whole country is following it."
He wanted badly to be part of it. He leads the Sabres in goals with 21 and is tied for the points lead with 41. He was also the team's leading goal scorer when the Czech roster was announced in December.
But he didn't make the cut. He was enraged the day he was snubbed, and while it still hurts, the pain has eased -- a little.
"It was the only personal goal I can have, just to reach the team," Kotalik said. "It was kind of frustrating, with those results I had at the time. I was a lot upset about it. I just want to move forward, even more focused on what we have to do here."
Although Kotalik dismissed it, there's a slim chance he can go to Turin. New York Rangers and Czech winger Petr Prucha injured his knee Sunday and will not play in the Olympics. Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils is a likely replacement.
"I'm probably thinking they will go with somebody else," Kotalik said. "Nobody contacted me."
The 27-year-old has three goals and four assists in the past five games. He gets a test tonight with Canadiens goalie Cristobal Huet, who has shutouts in back-to-back games. The victories marked only the second time since Nov. 8 that Montreal has won consecutive contests.
"Part of it is, you look at who's playing goal now," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said, referring to the fact starter Jose Theodore has been benched after plummeting to a save percentage of .881. "I think their problems have stemmed . . . Theodore's had a tough time. Everybody realizes he is a heck of a goalie, but he has struggled. It starts there. If you're not getting key saves or if you're not just getting the saves that allow you to win hockey games, it makes it tough on the team."
The netminder hasn't mattered much to Kotalik. He beat Dominik Hasek for the Sabres' only regulation goal in the 2-1 shootout victory over Ottawa on Saturday. Surprisingly, Kotalik said it didn't mean much to beat the Czech legend.
"It was the same feeling if you beat any other goalie," he said. "Dom is definitely one of the biggest persons ever in Czech hockey history. But, you know, you just can't think like that. It feels fine, but I'm not the only guy who's beat him."
Kotalik does think, though, that Hasek and his countrymen should be the favorites in Turin. He'll be rooting along, but unfortunately not from the bench.
"Definitely, the team is going to be very strong, like each Olympics," Kotalik said. "For me, it's going to be a little frustrating because I'm not part of the team. But you know, stuff happens in the hockey life, and I've got to get over it."