BRATISLAVA – It wasn’t supposed be like this. Slovakia, hosting the World Championship for the first time in the country’s history, was not supposed to be affected by the home ice curse. They had their best players in Bratislava, all their offensive weapons, almost the same team that charmed the hockey world in the Vancouver Olympics.
And yet, here they are, 1-1 after two games, after a sweaty 3-1 win over Slovenia – with Lubos Bartecko’s empty-netter – and a 4-3 loss to Germany. A good comeback in the third period made it an honorable loss, but a loss nonetheless.
“As a coach, you always feel a little better the next day, when you see it. I liked the way we started, but we got away from our plan, and lost our patience, and tried to force some plays through the middle,” Slovakia’s head coach Glen Hanlon told IIHF.com.
“When you have this much skill on the team, sometimes our patience gets really tested. I know we have skill, I know we have desire, and I know the players are excited, but If we don’t have the puck, we want the team to stay patient,” he added.
It’s only human to lose your cool when a soldout crowd is chanting, yelling, and cheering you on. There are friends, relatives, in the stands, the whole nation is looking to you. The home ice curse is a 25 years old for a reason.
“The home crowd adds to that. Our top players are overstimulated. They’re overexcited, overemotional, and they’re outside of their comfort level. Our offensive players are usually the most relaxed players on the ice, but now they all want to do it so badly,” Hanlon says.
“We’re just trying to get them removed from their situation and play their own game,” he adds.
Suddenly, Slovakia’s game against Russia is a crucial one to keep the team’s dream alive. A win would not only guarantee a spot in the Qualification Round, but it would also give Slovakia three big points going into the next round.
“We were expected to win these first two games. We were a little bit demotivated by the outcome of the Slovenia game. Focusing so much on not losing is a tough environment to play in. We were expected to win (against Germany), and being at home, with our NHL players, got us a little too hyped up,” Hanlon says.
“Now we can just go out and play, and we’ve had some good meetings with the players. It’s like the NHL playoffs, where it takes a round or two to get into the rhythm. The first round is also mentally the toughest one,” he says.
Russia hasn’t been the force it was expected to be, either. The 2008 and 2009 World Champions have an identical record with Slovakia. Both beat Slovenia – Russia 6-4, and Alexander Radulov scored the game winner with just 3:41 remaining in the game – and lost to Germany.
“The Team Russia assistant coach Zakharin has said publicly that their focus is in the second week, and that’s pretty smart. To win gold, you have to beat top teams in any case,” Hanlon says.
Hanlon is trying to help his top players to be patient and cool, but there’s no escaping the fact that the pressure is mounting. And the heat is on the head coach.
“Host teams haven’t had success in a long time. Not because they’ve had poor teams, but because they haven’t been able to manage their emotions properly. And that’s what we’ve spent lots of time trying to figure out,” he says.