Slovakia snapped a gut-wrenching three-game losing streak with a 6-3 win over France. It wasn’t as easy as the score indicated, however.
Richard Panik set the tone for Slovakia with the game-opening goal and two assists. Alexandre Texier, France's rising young star, had a goal and an assist for his team.
“Overall we played a good game, but we have to play 60 minutes if we want to win the game,” said Texier. “Tonight we played 40, 45 minutes. That's not enough against a team like Slovakia.”
After opening the tournament on a positive note with a win over the USA, the Slovaks lost the next three games. Worst of all, they squandered at least four points in the late going against Canada and Germany, which put them in a precarious position. They knew that in order to keep alive their already fleeting quarter-final chances, they must take all remaining nine points available against three beatable teams and they started on the right foot by doing that today against France.
“We wanted to give it 100 per cent today for our fans, and we won for them,” said Slovak goaltender Patrik Rybar, who stopped 17 of 20 French shots. “We needed to win. We want to make the quarter-finals. We know Germany has to beat the U.S., but we know we need to get six more points as well. We're happy to play in our home country, but now we have to keep going.”
It took a while for them to get going, though. Despite getting the game’s first three power plays, the Slovaks were unable to generate much early offence. Finally, on their third opportunity, Panik put the puck in the net at 13:25. The French challenged for goaltender interference but because forward Libor Hudacek was pushed into Florian Hardy by defenceman Jonathan Janil, the goal was allowed to stand.
That was the spark that the Slovak players and fans needed, as both came alive. Rybar provided a further spark when he stopped French captain Damien Fleury on a breakaway with a minute and a half left in the opening period, and just moments later Matus Sukel redirected Martin Fehervary’s long, low shot past Hardy, sending Slovakia into the first intermission with a 2-0 lead.
“We said before the game we have to play a simple game, play most of the game in the offensive zone, which we did except for the second period when we weren't that aggressive,” said Fehervary. “I played my first World Junior Championship in Toronto when there were 15,000 fans, but this is my home. I'm from Kosice and we have some of the best fans in the world. It's really amazing to play in front of our fans.”
Early in the second period, Slovakia went to the power play for the fourth time and Hudacek finished off a nice tic-tac-toe passing play with a backhand deke on Hardy to make it 3-0 and it looked the Slovaks were off to the races.
But just as they did against Canada yesterday, the French rallied in the second period and scored twice to cut their deficit to one.
First, on a prolonged delayed Slovak penalty where the French kept possession in the attacking zone, Kevin Hecquefeuille made a cross-ice pass to Antonin Manavian, who from a weak angle beat Rybar through the legs. Then, less than three minutes later on France’s first power play of the game, Texier sent a waist-high wrist shot through the crowd in front of the net and beat a screened Rybar cleanly.
A hush came over Steel Arena, as fans feared their team might be collapsing for a third straight game. However, it took just 16 seconds into the third period for Erik Cernak to give his team a bit of breathing room, blowing a slapper under the arm of Hardy.
France had a chance to get that one back on the power play, but instead they got pinned in their own zone. David Buc forced a turnover behind the net and fed defenceman Michal Cajkovsky in front, who went high stick side on Hardy to restore the three-goal lead.
With the pressure off, Ladislav Nagy, the biggest hero of the six hometown Kosice boys in the Slovak lineup, made it 6-2 with 14:19 to go, converting a nifty behind-the-back pass by Marko Dano. By that time, the game was essentially over. After stopping 17 of 23 Slovak shots, many of which he was left hung out to dry on, Hardy was mercifully pulled in favour of Henri Corentin Buysse, who mopped up by stopping all four shots he faced.
The Slovak fans, with victory in hand and the monkey seemingly off their backs for now, celebrated the rest of the way to such an extent that it shook the arena.
Anthony Rech got one more late goal for France with 2:09 to play by beating Rybar with a low wrister between the pads, but that's as far as the second comeback attempt went.
The work has only begun for Slovakia, however. The team is back in action tomorrow against Great Britain and needs another three points. After playing two straight days, France gets tomorrow off and plays Finland on Sunday. That team's fate will likely be decided on Monday in a game against GB to avoid relegation.
“We're not happy but we have to get ready for the next game against Finland. We'll leave it all out there,” Texier promised.