HELSINKI – Miroslav Satan's second goal of the game, a beautiful short-handed marker early in the third, broke a 1-1 tie and led Slovakia to a 3-1 victory over the Czech Republic to give his team a place in the gold-medal game tomorrow.
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At 37, Satan may be in the twilight of his career, but the captain of the 2002 gold-medal team has been extraordinary this year. Goalie Jan Laco, quickly emerging as the best goalie in the tournament, stopped 36 of 37 shots, giving the Slovaks their seventh win in a row here in Helsinki.
The Slovaks will play Russia in the final game of the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
"Nobody expected us to even make the quarter-finals," said Michal Handzus. "We just kept together as a team. It’s not every year that we can get to the finals."
"Russia is the big favorite," noted Andrej Sekera, "but we're the second team standing here. I guess everybody was the favourite against us, somehow we managed to deal with it. We'll try again tomorrow."
Does that sound familiar? These two teams met for gold in 2002, the Slovaks prevailing, 4-3, on Peter Bondra's goal with 100 seconds remaining in regulation.
The first game tomorrow will see the Czechs and Finns battle for bronze.
"Obviously right now it’s tough," said Petr Nedved, "but tomorrow we have to come here and somehow forget about this game, which is going to be tough. But that’s what we have to do: prepare ourselves for the game with the Finns tomorrow."
Zdeno Chara, who played the last three minutes of the game, logged a game high 26:27 of ice time and was a force inside his own blue line.
"We all know we play not just for us, but for our country," Chara said. Obviously, since the tragedy that happened, we know it's not just for us, it's also for Pavol," he added, in reference to the late Pavol Demitra who perished in the Yaroslavl plane crash last year.
The only goal of the first period came as a result of a nice rush by defenceman Andrej Sekera. As he crossed the blue line he dished the puck off to Satan, and his low shot to the far side went under the left pad of Jakub Kovar at 15:52.
The Slovaks were the more impressive team as they collapsed around Laco and blocked several shots, getting their sticks in the way of other passes and limiting the pressure Laco had to face. The best chance for the Czechs came halfway through when Miroslav Blatak’s quick point shot went all the way through and bounced off the post.
While the Slovaks did a great job containing the Czechs in the first, it was the Czechs who dominated the second period. They were full merit for tying the score midway through. After several minutes of hemming the Slovaks in their own end, Tomas Plekanec won a faceoff to Laco’s right. The puck went right to Michael Frolik, and he wired a quick shot under Laco’s arm at 10:45.
"It was a great faceoff by Tomas Plekanec," Frolik noted. "I just jumped on the play and tried to shoot it, hoping it would get through. It was a good goal and we tied the game."
The Slovaks also picked up the only two penalties of the period and were lucky to leave the ice after 40 minutes in a 1-1 tie. But the bad blood between the teams was evident as no fewer than three players left the ice with what looked to be serious injuries. Early in the first, Martin Erat had his head snapped back with a shoulder check and didn’t return.
In the second, Petr Prucha gave Tomas Starosta a dangerous little shove as they chased a puck down in the end boards. Starosta lost his balance, smashed awkwardly into the boards, and fell in a heap clutching his right shoulder. He didn't return either.
A short time later Slovak defenceman Mario Bliznak stepped up into the centre-ice area and delivered what looked like an elbow to the head of Frolik. The Czech sported a cut on his cheeckbone and skated woozily off to the dressing room but came back for the final period.
It was decided after the game that none of these incidents will be reviewed by the Disciplinary Panel. Erat, however, has a concussion, according to Czech GM Slava Lener and won't play in the bronze game tomorrow.
The Czechs started the third on a power play and had a great opportunity to carry over their momentum from the middle period, but it was the Slovaks who stunned their opponents. While the Czechs were moving the puck around in the Slovaks end, Michal Handzus made a great pokecheck that got the puck outside the blue line. Satan got to it first, skated in alone, and beat Kovar with a great deke to give the Slovaks a 2-1 lead with a short-handed goal just 56 seconds into the period.
"We should have scored on our power play," Nedved said. "It was one of those things that happen. They got a lucky break."
Libor Hudacek then pounced on a giveaway by Miroslav Blatak deep in the Czech zone, made a similar deke to Satan, and increased the lead to 3-1 at 4:33. The Slovaks had re-claimed the game in similar fashion to their previous win against Canada.
They made no mistake the rest of the period, playing tenaciously, getting in the lanes to intercept passes, and keeping the Czechs to the outside.
The Czechs did not incur a single penalty in the game.