SASKATOON – In Saturday's opening Relegation Round game, the Slovaks took a big step toward avoiding Division I with a 3-2 win over Austria. Andrej Stastny scored the winner in the first minute of the third period.
Slovakia – Austria 3-2 (2-0, 0-2, 1-0)
"I was very happy that we won this game, but we didn't play our best," said Stastny. "We didn't score many goals."
The Slovaks took over temporary possession of first place in the relegation round standings with six points. The Czechs have three, while Latvia and Austria remain pointless. (The Slovaks carried over the points from their 8-3 win over Latvia, and the Czechs did likewise with their 7-1 decision versus Austria.)
"Even though we won this game, we were mad," said Slovak sniper Tomas Tatar. "Maybe we've got a problem in our locker room. We always stop playing, and the other team starts to play better and catch up to us."
Slovakia, which has never been relegated since making the top division in 1996, completes its Relegation Round slate versus the neighbouring Czech Republic on Monday. Looking back ten years, it's been a fall from grace for the nations that formerly made up Czechoslovakia. In 1999, Slovakia won its only World Junior medal (bronze), and in 2000 and 2001, the Czechs claimed gold.
"We are rivals, these two countries, so that game will be pretty good," said Tatar.
Austria's last game is also Monday, versus Latvia. The Austrians have only a slim chance of staying in the top division. They failed to stay up in their only two previous stints (1981 and 2004).
"We haven’t reached our goal," said Austrian captain Dominique Heinrich. "We're all devastated after this narrow defeat. We kept up with the Slovaks and I think we would have deserved to win the game. I think they were a little bit luckier."
Slovak goalie Tomas Halasz earned the win over Austria's Lorenz Hirn as Slovakia outshot Austria 41-26.
At 6:47, Tatar opened the scoring on the power play for the Slovaks, finishing off a nifty passing play with a quick wrister from the hash marks.
At 14:34, Slovakia made it 2-0 at the end of an extended man advantage, as Richard Panik fooled Hirn with his release from the side of the net. Tatar got an assist on the play. The Slovaks ran up a 16-5 lead in shots on goal in the first period.
The crowd of 8,634, always happy to support an underdog, erupted when Austria's Andreas Kristler hustled over the blueline and snapped a shot over the glove of Halasz at 2:30 of the second to cut the deficit to 2-1.
The Austrians followed up with good power play pressure as the Slovaks took three straight minors, and it paid off. Heinrich tallied the equalizer with 6:51 left in the period, whipping home a rebound from the faceoff circle to Halasz's left. It was the third time in this tournament Austria has rallied to tie a favoured opponent, Sweden and Russia being the previous cases.
The Slovaks got a 5-on-3 man advantage in the dying stages of the second, but Hirn was excellent and managed to keep Austria even.
Just 27 seconds into the third, Andrej Stastny gave Slovakia the lead again when he scored off a faceoff in the Austrian zone.
Halasz made a nice glove save on Markus Unterweger during an odd-man Austrian rush with under six minutes left, and stood his ground during a late Austrian power play to preserve the gap.
"We're not giving up, and we'll do everything we can to win our game against Latvia," said Heinrich.
Relegation Round action continues on Sunday with the Czech Republic facing Latvia.