Slovaks hope to surprise

Tough road ahead without Demitra, Satan and other old stars

27.01.2014
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Who will congratulate whom this time? Hulking Slovak defenceman Zdeno Chara and Russian star Alexander Ovechkin will meet in the preliminary round for a rematch of the 2012 Worlds’ gold medal game. Photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images

Slovakia has never won an Olympic men’s hockey medal in five tries. But at the last two Winter Games, the Central European nation still excelled, and it shouldn’t be left out of the conversation this time either.

“Hopefully we can get it together and play as a team,” said starting goalie Jaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues. “We’ll see what happens. We have to play one game at a time. That should be the whole approach. First of all, we need to enjoy it, because it’s really an opportunity of a lifetime.”

In 2006, the Slovaks were the only Group B team to post a perfect 5-0 round-robin record. They set the tone with an opening 5-3 win over mighty Russia, with Marian Gaborik showcasing his blazing speed on his two late goals to clinch the victory. Their tournament ended disappointingly in the quarter-finals with a 3-1 loss to the neighbouring Czechs, but it was still a good run despite the fifth-place finish.

In 2010, Slovakia shocked the Russians again, this time with a 2-1 shootout win, capped off by Pavol Demitra’s cheeky flip shot that fooled goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Coach Jan Filc’s group seemed like a team of destiny, earning back-to-back 4-3 playoff wins over (unsurprisingly) Norway and (surprisingly) Sweden, but just failing to come back against host Canada in a dramatic 3-2 semi-final loss. Then Slovakia heartbreakingly blew a 3-1 second-period lead against Finland in the bronze medal game, settling for fourth after a 5-3 defeat.

What about 2014? Always gutsy and intrepid, the Slovaks no longer have many of the great star forwards that carried them to history-making IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship silver (2000), gold (2002), and bronze (2003) medals. That hurts their chances.

Demitra, a leader and magical puckhandler, died too early at age 36 in the Yaroslavl plane crash in 2011. Frequent national team captain and clutch scorer Miroslav Satan was not named to the Sochi roster at age 39, while Jozef Stumpel, winding down his career at 41, was also excluded. Zigmund Palffy retired after 2013.

However, if you need a reminder that hockey is the perfect sport for underdogs who find a way to play as a team at the right time, look no further than Slovakia’s silver medal at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Finland and Sweden.

Despite icing arguably just one big-name star in his prime – hulking captain Zdeno Chara – the Slovaks hit their stride after barely making the quarter-finals with a 5-4 shootout win over France. When they lost 6-2 to Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s stacked Russian squad in the final, they’d already thoroughly exceeded expectations.

In Sochi, if Slovakia can beat either of the two legitimate gold medal contenders in Group A in the Preliminary Round, it’ll likewise exceed expectations.

“We have our first game against the United States,” said Halak. “I know they have a really good team. So does Russia. And Slovenia. It’s not an easy group, but we are the underdogs, and we can always surprise.”

“It’s a different team than we had the last time [in 2010],” Halak added. “But we’ve got some really good young guys, some experienced older guys. It’s a great group of guys.”

Offence must come from the Hossa brothers, as Marian (Chicago Blackhawks) and Marcel (Dinamo Riga) are the leading Slovak scorers in the NHL and KHL respectively, but the latter has been sidelines with an injury for over a week.

Will Gaborik’s broken collarbone heal in time for him to get in shape? Can power play quarterback Lubomir Visnovsky recover from the concussion that sidelined him in October? The answers to those questions will affect Slovakia’s ability to put the puck in the net, because Detroit rookie Tomas Tatar is the only Slovak other than Marian Hossa to top-10 NHL goals so far this season.

Defensively, Chara will need good support from smooth-skating blueliner Andrej Sekera, enjoying a career year with the Carolina Hurricanes, and physically minded Andrej Meszaros of the Philadelphia Flyers, primed for his third Olympics.

The Slovaks will have a more KHL-heavy roster than most of their competitors, with 10 players hailing from the 28-team, Russia-centric circuit. Will playing on the big ice surface that will be used in Sochi give Slovakia an advantage?

“I don’t know if it’s an advantage or not,” said Halak. “Most likely it could be. But we’re not the only team with guys from the KHL. It’ll be a bit different for the guys from the NHL. You have to get used to it right away, or you’ll find yourself in a hole.”

Projected Result:

Over time, Slovakia is inexorably trending downward because its development programs are not replacing the talent that delivered its early new-millennium medals. That said, it still has enough moxie to surprise top-flight opponents in Sochi. But getting past the quarter-finals would be a nice bonus this time around, not a strong expectation.

Top-3 Players:

Zdeno Chara: Ask Halak about the 2009 Norris Trophy winner and two-time World Championship All-Star, and you get an enthusiastic response: “Zdeno is a great guy, first of all. He’s a really experienced guy. He won the Stanley Cup [in 2011 with Boston], he’s been to the World Championships. Obviously he’s a mentor for our young guys. On the ice, he plays such a big role for Boston, and every time he’s on the national team, he plays a big role for us.” Chara will log close to 30 minutes a night for coach Vladimir Vujtek, and his ability to hold up under that workload may determine Slovakia’s fate.

Jaroslav Halak: Halak must exhibit the stellar form that carried the Montreal Canadiens to the 2010 Eastern Conference finals and that earned him the 2012 Jennings Trophy with partner Brian Elliott in 2012. Although his focus has been criticized at times this season, the Bratislava-born netminder is capable of outdueling Russia’s Semyon Varlamov or the Americans’ Jonathan Quick on any given night.

Marian Hossa: Hossa was once mocked for wandering from Pittsburgh to Detroit to Chicago in search of a Stanley Cup. Now that he has two rings with the Blackhawks (2010, 2013), nobody is chuckling anymore about one of the world’s best two-way forwards – except maybe his happy teammates. At age 35, Hossa will be motivated to medal in what could be his final Olympics.

Dark Horse:

Jan Laco: Laco was an unknown internationally before backstopping Slovakia to silver in 2012 and being named Best Goalie of the Worlds. If Halak or backup Peter Budaj falters or gets injured, it could be the 32-year-old Donbass Donetsk netminder’s time to shine again. Don’t laugh. Remember, the Czechs won bronze in 2006 and used third goalie Milan Hnilicka as well as Tomas Vokoun after starter Dominik Hasek got hurt in their opener.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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