UFA – Seventh or eighth place. That’s where most observers would initially have picked Slovakia to finish at the 2013 World Juniors. But this team has shown surprising resilience so far.
The Slovaks fought back from a 2-0 deficit against host Russia in their first game, tying the score on Richard Mraz’s goal with 36 seconds left. Even though they lost 3-2 in overtime, their ability to limit Russia’s firepower was attention-grabbing.
“If we continue to play like this, I think we can go far,” said forward Matus Matis afterwards.
Facing Canada on Friday, the Slovaks outworked their heavily favoured opponents in the early going, taking leads of 2-0 and 3-1. Even though the Canadians regained their momentum midway through the game, with two quick power play goals kickstarting their rally to a 6-3 win, coach Ernest Bokros’s team earned respect.
“Slovakia has showed these last two games that they’re a very good team,” said Canada’s Ty Rattie. “They’re a dark horse in our division.”
For optimistic Slovak fans, the early trend provides hope that this group could emulate some of their nation’s recent exploits in senior IIHF competition.
At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, the Slovaks marched all the way to the semi-finals and wound up in fourth place. Highlights of that run included a 2-1 win over Russia, with the late Pavol Demitra scoring a beautiful shootout winner (he and Marian Hossa finished 1-2 in tournament scoring); a hard-fought 4-3 quarter-final victory over Sweden; and a dramatic late push against eventual champion Canada in a 3-2 semi-final loss.
At the 2012 IIHF World Championship in Finland, the Slovaks squeaked into the playoffs with a 5-4 win over France, but then the Zdeno Chara-led squad cranked it up. They eliminated Canada and the Czechs before falling 6-2 to Russia in the final. The silver medal far exceeded expectations.
But in fairness, Slovakia’s U20 squad clearly lacks the marquee names of its senior counterparts. Anything they achieve will be a total team effort.
Sixteen roster players suit up together regularly with Orange 20 Bratislava in the Slovak Extraliga. That program, which has operated since 2007-08, may now be paying dividends in terms of cohesion on and off the ice.
Thus far, Slovakia’s offensive leader has been Marko Dano. The 18-year-old forward, who’s tallied two goals and two assists in Ufa, plays for the KHL’s Slovan Bratislava.
Peter Ceresnak, a 19-year-old defenceman who plays for the OHL’s Peterborough Petes and was drafted in the sixth round by the New York Rangers in 2011, is another important piece of the puzzle as a third-time World Junior participant.
“I have more experience than the other guys,” said Ceresnak. “So I need to play my best and help the team get points.”
To borrow a phrase from Prince, a victory over Germany on December 30 is essential if Slovakia aspires to “party like it’s 1999.” (Beating the Americans on New Year’s Eve to close out the round-robin is a tall order.)
1999 witnessed Slovakia’s one and only medal in World Junior history: a bronze in Winnipeg. With the team sporting dyed blonde hair as a display of togetherness, sniper Ladislav Nagy scored a hat trick to lead the way in a 5-4 victory over a Swedish squad featuring the Sedin twins.
It’s still a long shot that this year’s team will bring home any hardware. Slovakia has finished eighth at four out of the last six World Juniors, and hasn’t appeared in a medal game since 2009. Its status among the "Big Seven" hockey nations often appears shaky.
But if Slovak fans have learned one thing in recent years, it’s "never say never".