HELSINKI – Two teams that have surprised in different ways are about to meet tonight at Hartwall Arena, the winner advancing to the gold medal game of the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship on Sunday night.
Each country of the former Czechoslovakia has had its “Really?” moment so far. For the Slovaks, it’s the fact that after an unimpressive 0-2 start, they have won six straight games. Really? Yep.
For the Czechs, They lost the only two games they played against opponents more or less equal in the standings, going down to Sweden 4-1 and then Russia, 2-0. And then, playing Sweden again, in Stockholm, they pull out a stunning win to eliminate the co-hosts. Really? Yep.
Both teams arrived in today’s semi-finals via miracle finishes. The Slovaks took control of their game against Canada by storming out to a 2-0 lead but were then dominated in the second and trailed in the third, 3-2, with only a few minutes to go. Undaunted, they rallied, scoring the game winner on a power play with two and a half minutes to go.
The Czechs did something similar. They blew a 3-1 lead to Sweden but scored the game winner with only 30 seconds left in regulation.
“We speak the same language, and we have lots of friends on their team,” said Milan Michalek, the Czech goal scorer who eliminated Sweden. “It’s a semi-final, so it’s going to be a great game. They beat Team Canada and that’s one of the best teams here. Their goalie is playing well. It’ll be a tough game.”
In both situations, it would be fair to say the underdog won, but both winners were lurking in the shadows, as it were, teams much better than most gave them credit for.
Tomas Tatar, who assisted on Milan Bartovic’s game-tying goal versus Canada, said, “We’re going to play the same way we’ve played so far in the tournament. We’ll try to win the game. We want a medal now.”
And so, against a political and social backdrop of their geography, which saw the countries split two decades ago, we have a classic rivalry in one semi-finals. Unfortunately for the Slovaks, they have won only two of 15 games since their first meeting, at the 1994 Olympics, and neither of those two came in 2002 when the Slovaks won their first and only World Championship gold.
But perhaps that doesn’t mean as much as the names on the rosters for today’s game, names impressive on either side of centre ice. Emotionally, the Slovaks are led by a troika of veterans, including captain Zdeno Chara, 2002 captain Miroslav Satan, and Michal Handzus. Chara leads the team with an average of 23:23 of ice time. To put that into perspective, the next most active player is defenceman Andrej Sekera (18:47). Sekera is also tied for the team lead in points (8) with forward Branko Radivojevic.
“We have a great team, on the ice and especially off the ice,” Sekera said. “We help each other, and try to make everybody else's life easier and more comfortable. So far it’s working. It’s a great feeling to be the underdog. The win against Canada was huge for us, and gives us strength, especially mentally.”
But an emerging story is the play of goalie Jan Laco. The unheralded 30-year-old has played in seven of eight games for his teams, posted a 92.8 save percentage, and has a goals against average of just 1.86. He, along with the defence in front of him, is a large reason the team has advanced as far as it has.
One of the keys to both teams’ success has been their ability to avoid penalties. The Slovaks (54 PIMs) and Czechs (56) rank 16th and 15th, respectively in this category, meaning they don’t give away free goals by playing short-handed.
The Czech power play, however, has been impressive, scoring nine goals (at a 32 per cent clip) to the Slovaks’ five (22 per cent). And, while Laco has been impressive for Slovakia, so, too, has Jakub Kovar for the Czechs. In five games, his save percentage is 93.8 and GAA 1.77.
Ales Hemsky has five goals for the Czechs, but with both teams the offence has succeeded by committee. A balanced attack and a defensive system have meant neither team has had to rely on one or two key players for victory. Each night, a new hero has emerged.
“We’ve got to start with the basics,” said Czech Jakub Petrazalek. “We’ve got to start from the first faceoff and go hard for 60 minutes, because you never know what’s going to happen in the 58th or 59th minute…You have to stay with it for 60 minutes, play as a team, play for each other, play for the guy who’s on your left, play for the guy who’s on your right, and obviously for the guy who’s in net.”
Said Miroslav Satan, together with Handzus one of the last two survivors from the gold-medal team of 2002: “We’ve changed the team a little bit over the last few years. We're a much younger team, and we have players who don’t have experience of international hockey. We don’t know how good we can be, but we’ll always give it our best shot.”
Today is the day of reckoning.