HELSINKI – Talk about going from one extreme to another. Slovakia finished 10th as the host of the 2011 IIHF World Championship. But then, it earned a surprising silver medal in last year’s final against powerhouse Russia in Helsinki.
That achievement was as emotional as it was unexpected, particularly due to Slovakia’s close ties to the tragic September 2011 plane crash that wiped out the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Former Slovak national team captain Pavol Demitra was on that flight, and as a tribute, Zdeno Chara wore a jersey with Demitra’s name and number (38) at the medal ceremony last year. And head coach Vladimir Vujtek had, coincidentally, guided Lokomotiv Yaroslavl until his resignation in April 2011.
Slovakia’s long-term challenge is to develop more young talent in the post-Socialist era, where there are no longer state-sponsored sports schools geared to turn out elite performers. But this year, it’ll still be relying largely on veterans to carry it through must-win situations.
Rastislav Stana will return to the World Championship squad for the first time since 2009 after having a career year with the KHL’s CSKA Moscow. The acrobatic 32-year-old earned a league-leading 1.74 GAA and a 93.9 save percentage in 34 regular season appearances. He won gold (2002) and bronze (2003) previously with Slovakia at the Worlds.
Stana is joined by Frölunda Gothenburg’s Julius Hudacek, who was on the Worlds roster last year but saw no action, and Slovan Bratislava starter Jaroslav Janus. The latter is a Worlds rookie whose greatest international achievement so far has been upsetting the Americans in the 2009 World Junior quarter-finals.
Jan Laco, named an all-star and Best Goalie at last year’s tournament, won’t get to reprise his heroics. The Donbass Donestsk netminder, who backstopped his KHL club to the Continental Cup in January, is sidelined with an injury.
Even without hulking Zdeno Chara, who’s captaining the Boston Bruins in the NHL playoffs, Slovakia’s blueline boasts plenty of size. Look no further than Vladimir Mihalik (111 kg and 208 cm), Milan Jurcina (114 kg and 193 cm), and Branislav Mezei (104 kg and 192 cm).
While those ex-NHLers aren’t noted for their finesse, it’ll help if swift-skating Andrej Sekera of the Buffalo Sabres can pick up where he left off last year. Sekera notched nine points, tied for second-best among tournament defenders, and will need to be a difference-maker on the power play this time too.
Scoring by committee will be the order of the day. Columbus Blue Jackets sniper Marian Gaborik is reportedly having abdominal surgery and will likely be unavailable. So who will pick up the slack?
Tomas Kopecky is coming off a respectable offensive season with the NHL’s Florida Panthers (15-12-27 in 47 games). And Tomas Zaborsky will make his World Championship debut at age 25. The Avangard Omsk winger led all Slovak KHL scorers with 21 goals and 20 assists this season.
It’s not fair to expect the legendary Miroslav Satan to pump in 10 goals as he did en route to Slovakia’s historic first Worlds medal, 2000’s silver. The 38-year-old Slovan Bratislava captain had to recover from a neck injury suffered on a dangerous hit from Chara back in November. But he knows how to score at big times. Satan potted two goals, including the winner, in Slovakia’s 3-1 semi-final victory over the Czechs in 2012.
A fellow star who broke into the NHL in the 1990s, 40-year-old Josef Stümpel, will also bring veteran leadership. Yet the Slovaks will need some energy and timely goals from youngsters like Slovan Bratislava’s Marko Dano if they’re going anywhere this year.
Coach Vladimir Vujtek ended a disturbing trend that had seen Slovakia finish no higher than 10th between 2008 and 2011. But now the bar has been raised, and his team sits sixth in the IIHF World Ranking.
The 65-year-old former Czech League forward’s challenge is to make his players believe that the silver medal they achieved in 2012 wasn’t just a fluke, and that they can return to the podium with a commitment to structured team defence. Vujtek won two Russian Superliga titles with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (2002, 2003), so he knows what it takes.
The Slovaks should be good enough to join Russia, Finland, and the United States among the quarter-finalists in the Helsinki group. But the operative word is “should.” Will they be able to put the puck in the net consistently? Can they clamp down defensively as a team, as they did last year in the Preliminary Round with just 13 goals against in seven games? Will the goaltending be anywhere near as good as what Laco provided?
If there are more “nos” than “yeses,” then the Slovaks could find themselves finishing outside the top eight again.