A tall order

Without Chara, NHL stars, Slovaks face hard road

08.05.2014
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Tall order for Slovakia. With Zdeno Chara (left) missing, others will have to shine. Like Jan Laco, who backstopped the Slovaks to silver in his only World Championship participation in 2012. Photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images

Slovakia, though still considered part of the hockey elite, is coming off a forgettable Olympic performance and will be toiling without its big stars in Minsk.

Its only World Championship gold came twelve years ago and not a lot of things have happened with Slovakia since to secure its place among perennial contenders. To be sure, there have been two medal finishes, including a spectacular 2011 performance on the way to an unexpected silver, and an Olympic semi-final in 2010 which almost derailed Canada’s golden campaign on home ice.

But there was a lot more disappointment in between these occasional successes, from barely avoiding relegation in 2008 (when it famously took a shootout to finally put away Slovenia) to the miserable performance in Sochi, with four losses in four games, including the 7-1 shellacking by the USA.

And that was a team with Zdeno Chara on its roster! What awaits the Chara-less Slovaks in Minsk? Not a lot of expectation, that is for sure. But it’s not like young and unheralded teams don’t have a history of pleasant surprises at the World Championships. And it’s not like Slovakia has a history of being predictable.

Goal

This was a problem area in Sochi, where NHLers Jaroslav Halak and Peter Budaj proved a disappointment and where eventually replaced by Jan Laco from the KHL’s Donbass Donetsk. Laco will arrive in Minsk as the favourite to take over as the starter after leading his team to the Gagarin Cup playoffs. Laco was Slovakia’s number one goalie at the 2012 World Championship and, with Budaj still in the NHL playoffs and Halak missing the Worlds after an eventful season that saw him traded to Washington, the Donbass netminder should be the consensus choice to start the tourney in net.

Laco looked impressive for Slovakia in a pre-Minsk tune-up against Russia, a 4-3 win, that seemed to have solidified his status. His KHL colleague Jarosal Janus was backstopping Slovan Bratislava in a disappointing league campaign but his experience should make him the number two choice, ahead of Julius Hudacek who has not yet played a World Championship game.

Defence

Martin Marincin is the only NHL player in Slovakia’s current defensive corps and he only just earned his spot on the Edmonton Oilers lineup this season. That is a far cry from Chara, one of the world’s finest defencemen and generally the face of Slovak hockey.

You won’t find any big stars here, as a matter of fact, though the lineup is somewhere between middling and decent, depending on how it will come together as a team in Minsk. Ivan Svarny had an excellent season with Medvescak Zagreb and landed a two-year deal with the rebuilding Dynamo Minsk. Vladimir Mihalik brings international experience and a huge frame which is only slightly smaller than Chara’s. Expect the Slovaks to attempt to play tough, conservative hockey in its own zone and try to deliver physical punishment to more skilled opponents.

That said, Slovak fans will be rooting mightily for the Boston Bruins to be knocked out of the NHL playoffs so that their most recognizable player would have a chance to shore up the defensive unit in Minsk.

Forwards

We are sorry, Slovakia, the star forward named Marian you are trying to reach is unavailable. He is currently engaged in knocking either the Anaheim Ducks or the Minnesota Wild out of Stanley Cup contention… Marian Gaborik does look as good as ever in the Kings uniform, but his home country will have to deal without him again. The same goes for Marian Hossa whose Blackhawks are among the Cup favorites this year.

This means that the NHL contingent for Slovakia is limited to a couple of youngsters, Detroit’s Tomas Tatar and Tampa’s Richard Panik. The former is a very exciting player who has scored 19 goals and 39 points for the Red Wings this season and made his Olympic debut in Sochi. So did Panik, but his transition from a superstar of junior hockey to the “big time” has not been as effortless.

Speaking of junior stars, Martin Reway is tearing up the QMJHL with Gatineau Olympique and had a great World Junior Championship this year, but is still an unknown commodity in adult hockey.

Former Phoenix Coyotes regular Ladislav Nagy is no longer NHL material but he is enjoying a very productive career in Europe, with Jokerit Helsinki being his latest stop, where he was nearly a point-a-game player.

But as far as real star power goes, nobody beats the indestructible 39-year-old captain Miroslav Satan who will appear in a mind-boggling 12th World Championship. The only remaining link to the 2002 gold-medal team, which he also captained, spent the last several years with Slovan and saw his role diminished by age and injuries. Still, few people in Slovak hockey command as much respect as he does and his presence will serve a unifying role on the otherwise inexperienced and raw lineup.

Coaching

At least Vladimir Vujtek does not lack experience and accomplishments. The Czech coach became a fan favourite in Russia when he led Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to two straight Superliga titles (becoming the first foreign bench boss to win the Russian championship) and has forged a great reputation for himself in Slovakia after the successful 2012 World Championship campaign.

Vujtek was largely spared from criticism for the terrible result in Sochi as the injuries to top players were deemed a far bigger factor than coaching failures. Nobody doubts his ability to make the team work hard and play selfless hockey. Whether this will be enough to overcome another personnel deficiency remains to be seen.

Projected Result

The opening day’s “derby” with the Czech Republic will be well-hyped in both countries, but truly important games lie ahead. Slovakia is projected to make it out of Group A, as it likely needs to finish ahead of such teams as Italy, France, Norway and Denmark in order to do so. Winning these four games is an absolute must if the Slovaks are to avoid the embarrassment of a double-digit-place finish.

SLAVA MALAMUD

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