HELSINKI Ė Just like last year, Slovakia clinched its quarter-final berth in its last preliminary-round game. This year, they did it by beating Team USA 4-1.
Videos: Highlights, Post-Game Interviews
Martin Bartek scored the game winner early, just 3:44 into the game.
"We played good defence and we took everything they had in the neutral zone, so they had to dump the puck, and then we battled it out," said Slovakia's defenceman Andrej Sekera.
"They played more desperate than we did, and that's something we have to take care of. We can't come out the way we did, especially with the quarter-final coming up," said Team USA forward Stephen Gionta.
Just like last year, Slovakia has been flying under the radar a little bit, and had to wait until their last preliminary round game to clinch their quarter-final spot. But they did. Last year, they went all the way to the final.
"Hard work and a little bit of luck," Sekera said of the team's success.
"In the last couple of games, the bounces haven't gone our way, today everything went our way," he added.
Last week, Team USA goaltender Ben Bishop told IIHF.com that he liked playing in the international ice sheet because with no trapezoid behind the net, he could stickhandle anywhere.
In the game against Slovakia, he stickhandled behind his net, and when he tried to dump the puck into the corner, his shot hit Tomas Kopeckyís leg, and the puck was deflected to the front of the net, where Branko Radivojevic tapped it in to give Slovakia a 1-0 lead at 0:15.
15 seconds. Thatís all it took for Slovakia to take an important lead in an important game in which a regulation win would guarantee Slovakia a quarter-final spot. The Americans had group win on the line.
"Obviously, it's not the start you want, it was a tough bounce, off a skate to the front of a net. We can't get down on ourselves after a lucky bounce," said Gionta.
Just a minute later, newly-arrived T.J. Oshie received an interference minor, and while the U.S. killed off that penalty, Slovakia was firmly in the driverís seat.
Thirty seconds after Team USA was back at full strength, Miroslav Satan played the puck to Martin Bartek, who was flying down the left lane. Bartek fired a shot from the top of the circle, and somehow the puck found its way to the back of the net. Bishop seemed surprised to see that. Slovakia had a two-goal lead after just 3:44.
"Every time you get a lead in these tournaments, it's huge for the team. It puts some pressure on the opponent to create something," said Sekera.
In the second period, Team USA got back into the game, creating several good scoring chances, but Rastislav Stana was stella in net for Slovakia.
Halfway through the period, Craig Smith - second in team scoring - received a game misconduct for checking in the head, and on the power play that ensued, Slovakia proved that they didnít need any help from the opposing teamís goalie to scored goals. Roman Kukumberg and Tomas Zaborsky played the puck to Renť Vydareny, who was all alone at Bishopís doorstep, and he had an easy task to finish the Slovak power play .
The U.S. didnít give up, though. With 46 seconds remaining in the period, Danny Kristo ended Stanaís shutout campaign with a wrist shot from the top of the circle, and gave the Americans hope for the third.
Slovakia was determined to get their points, and they defended well in the third period, keeping USA off the board.
And with 1:24 remaining in the third period, Dano scored an empty-netter - his first in the tournament - for the 4-1 final score.
"It was a big mental push for our team, especially after the games against Latvia, Austria, Russia and Finland, too, this will make us stronger and push us forward," Sekera said.
Slovakia will finish fourth in the group, even in the event that Germany beats France, as Slovakia beat Germany earlier in the tournament, and the head-to-head will be the tie-breaker, if two teams are tied in points.
"We had a chance to control our own destiny, now we'll have to wait and see," Team USA's Gionta said.