HELSINKI – As Canada and Slovakia prepare to fight for one of four precious spots in the semi-finals, current and distant history comes into play.
Canada beat Slovakia 3-2 on the opening day of the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, but as Miroslav Satan said after the final game of the round robin, “We are a better team now, but so are they. Both teams will play at a higher level.”
There have been two memorable games in particular in this nascent rivalry. At the 2010 Olympics, Canada beat Slovakia 3-2 in the semi-finals to advance to the gold-medal game. It held a 3-0 lead, but some shaky goaltending from Roberto Luongo let the Slovaks back in the game, and they nearly tied the score in the dying seconds.
In 2002, at the World Championship in Gothenburg, Slovakia scored a last second goal in the second period to cut Canada’s lead to 2-1. The Slovaks then scored the only two goals of the final period and won, 3-2, to advance to the gold game, which it won for the first time in the country’s young history.
Here in Helsinki, though, the Canadians certainly have the edge. They lost only once in seven games of the round robin, and that to the U.S. in overtime, while the Slovaks have struggled a bit, unable to find consistency or to draw impressive performances to match its best win, a 4-2 victory over the Americans.
The Slovaks are a bit of a puzzle. On the one hand, they have won their last five games after an 0-2 start. They have tremendous leadership in Satan, captain Zdeno Chara, and Michal Handzus. On the other hand, they had great difficulty beating France and have had trouble scoring against the better teams.
One thing they have done very well is stay out of the penalty box. They are dead last, 16th, in penalty minutes with only 48, and have allowed only two power-play goals in seven games. They have also allowed only 13 goals, third best in the tournament.
Canada needs two aspects of its game to work if it will win. First, it needs goalie Cam Ward to be more than just good – he must be excellent. In this respect, he has been inconsistent, playing great games sometimes (think Switzerland) and fighting the puck other times (think United States).
As well, the Kid Line, which is the team’s top line, must continue to produce. John Tavares (9 points), Jeff Skinner (4), and Jordan Eberle (7) are fast, quick, and imaginative, ferocious on the puck and slick around the net. And given their youth, they have plenty of experience. Tavares and Eberle are in their third WM and Skinner, at 19, his second already.
Canada also needs offensive support from captain Ryan Getzlaf and his Anaheim teammate, Corey Perry, while defenceman Duncan Keith leads all blueliners in the tournament with eleven points.
Slovakia has only two players on the first page of leading scorers, Brank Radivojevic and Andrej Sekera, both with seven points. And therein lies the rub. Canada has outscored the Slovaks 35-21 through the first seven games, so it will be up to goalie Jan Laco to try to contain the Canadian attack.
All in all, Canada has the edge in most aspects of the game, but it’s all about performance. If the nervous Slovak team that barely beat France shows up, Canada will win, but if the confident Slovak team that spanked the Americans shows up, Canada is in for a fight.