Slovakia is off to a great start as host of the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship after scoring a 4-1 victory over an American team that many considered a gold-medal candidate going in. Matus Sukel recorded two points in the victory, scoring the first goal and assisting on the last.
“It’s unbelievable (playing at home),” said Ladislav Nagy, the veteran at age 39 who many suspect is playing his last World Championship. “I had so many family and friends in the stands tonight. We have six players from here and the fans were cheering the full 60 minutes. It was great. It helped us play as well as we did. If we had a bad couple of minutes, they would cheer us on. Everybody loved it.”
The game was preceded by the official opening ceremony of the World Championship and a rousing rendition of the Slovak national anthem "Nad Tatrou sa blyska", which means “Lightning over the Tatras” in English. The lightning was accompanied by thunder throughout Steel Arena from the Kosice fans, who certainly had an impact over the opening minutes of the game.
With much of the early play in the American zone, it was the Slovaks striking first after Cory Schneider was unable to cover a rebound at the side of the net. From behind the net, Marian Studenec fed Sukel in front, who fired it into the open side as Schneider and Alec Martinez dove in desperation.
“We tried to use the crowd as much as possible,” said Slovak forward Robert Lantosi. “It was beautiful, unforgettable, playing on our home rink in Slovakia. It’s something special.”
But the Slovaks didn't fade away. Instead, they took the momentum back in their favour after two quick American penalties gave them a 5-on-3 for 1:48 early in the second period. It took just 16 seconds for Erik Cernak to fire home the go-ahead goal – a one-timer from the high slot nicely teed up after playing pitch-and-catch with Andrej Sekera.
Although the Slovaks didn’t score for the rest of the power play, they kept the momentum in their favour and Tomas Tatar made it 3-1 when he was left alone at the side of the net, taking a pass from Sukel on his skate and having time to kick it up to his stick and beat Schneider under the arm.
For Slovakia, the rest of the game was all about limiting chances against, and they did a great job of that, even on a US power play midway through the third period with some pretty dangerous players on the ice such as Hughes, van Riemsdyk and captain Patrick Kane. When called upon, Patrik Rybar was where he needed to be – the Slovak keeper made 25 saves on the night.
“We have a lot of young guys on the team,” said Nagy, “but I’m older so I try to help them in certain situations and explain how to play against the superstars like Kane, who’s a star in the NHL.”
Michal Kristof's goal with 4:06 to play on a set-up by defenceman Martin Marincin put the opening-night victory firmly in the Slovaks' hands.
“It was amazing,” said Marincin. “It’s my hometown. We have six players from here, so it was a great experience. Home is home.”