Daniel Vladimir Tkac scored the tie-breaker with 2:56 left in the third period as Slovakia kicked off its tournament with a tough 3-1 win over Kazakhstan on Friday.
Tkac, a World Junior rookie born in Pittsburgh to Slovak parents, rushed to the net and converted Michal Mrazik's feed. After the play was video-reviewed and ruled good, the Werk Arena crowd of 4,915 erupted.
"Michal Mrazik took the puck behind the net and he found me back door," said Tkac. "All I had to do was tap it in. It was a really nice play by him, a really good pass. All credit to him."
It was nothing like Slovakia's 11-2 romp over Kazakhstan last year in Victoria. Unfortunately for the Kazakhs, their hopes of avoiding the relegation round have taken a hit despite their valiant effort, since this was likely their most winnable Group A option. They are now 0-2 after their first-day 5-3 loss to Switzerland.
"They had six or seven players who played last year," said Slovakia's Maxim Cajkovic. "So they had that experience. They weren't that nervous. We had only two players back and most of the team was basically rookies, making their debut at these World Juniors. And we also played in front of our own fans, so we were a little bit nervous. We knew we had to win this game to make it easier in the future. I think our hands and our minds were a little bit slower tonight."
Oliver Okuliar and Robert Dzugan also scored for Slovakia. Maxim Musorov replied for the Kazakhs.
This was Slovakia's fourth straight win over Kazakhstan in World Junior history. The former Soviet republic won the first encounter 5-2 on 28 December, 1997 in Hameenlinna, Finland.
"It's a great feeling," said Cajkovic. "It's awesome. It feels great to win every single game. Winning is fun. That's what we did tonight, and we're happy."
Kazakh goalie Vladislav Nurek and his Slovak counterpart Samuel Hlavaj staged a good duel. Shots favoured Slovakia 24-23. Trinec is just minutes from the Slovakian border, and Werk Arena was packed with flag-waving, partisan fans.
Slovakia has never had a smooth ride at this tournament. In the 21st century, easily the biggest highlight remains winning bronze in 2015 in Montreal, which broke up a string of seventh- and eighth-place finishes. Regardless, nothing quells hockey fever in the Central European nation of 5.4 million people.
The evenly played first period was scoreless, but also up-tempo and physical. After Kazakhstan failed to capitalize with the game’s first man advantage, Hlavaj foiled a dangerous shorthanded rush with Kazakh assistant captain Ruslan Demin feeding Andrey Buyalskiy.
Slovakia had its own power play opportunities late in the frame, but couldn’t make any headway, even with a brief two-man advantage, despite good zone time.
In the second period, Okuliar finally drew first blood for Slovakia on the power play with a great shot from the right faceoff circle at 4:49.
Kzakhstan equalized with a power-play marker near the midway mark. From behind the goal line, Danil Butenko fed Musorov, and he stepped off the side boards to snipe one short side over Hlavaj's right shoulder. It was the Kazakh assistant captain's team-leading third goal of these World Juniors.
"We just kept playing our game," Tkac said. "We were all positive. We just knew what we had to do and we did it in the end."
The grit and intensity picked up in the third period. Konstantin Bondarenko hobbled to the bench after blocking a big drive by Slovakia's David Mudrak. Poor discipline nearly cost the Slovaks as they took back-to-back minors with under 10 minutes left and were besieged by coach Sergei Starygin's men.
Asked if taking fewer penalties is a priority, Cajkovic replied: "Yeah, 100 percent. That's all we were talking about in the exhibition games. We knew that our discipline is not as good as it should be. We're focusing on that. It wasn't that good tonight. We need to manage our sticks and our hands and stop making those little mistakes with tripping and hooking. Also, we shot the puck [over the glass in our] zone. We just need to focus and play simple."
With seven seconds remaining, Dzugan added an empty-netter to round out the scoring.
The lively atmosphere at the arena provided a nice distraction from HC Ocelari Trinec's opening 4-1 loss to Canada at the Spengler Cup in Switzerland. The club, which is the reigning Czech Extraliga champion, faced host Davos in its second game on Friday night.