In a battle between neighouring countries at Bratislava’s Ondrej Nepela Arena – located just 7 km from the Austrian border – Slovakia beat Austria 2-1 before an enthusiastic crowd of more than 4,241 – many of whom were watching their first live hockey game in ages. The Slovaks held a wide edge in play but stayed so close thanks to the goaltending of veteran David Kickert.
“There are always two points to be addressed: the result and the performance,” said Austrian head coach Roger Bader. “Of course I am disappointed that we lost, but overall I am satisfied with the performance. I think we played a very good game and we can be proud of this achievement.”
“I don’t know why we can never win a game easily,” said Slovak head coach Craig Ramsay. “No matter how well we play, we find a way to make it close and very difficult. Tonight our goalie was very good when we needed him and we created many opportunities to score, but passed up some really good chances trying to make a fancy play.”
The Slovaks hit the ice to a rousing ovation from the home crowd and wasted little time going to the attack. Applying pressure in the Austrian zone, they cashed in less than two minutes in when Peter Ceresnak sent a cross-ice pass to Libor Hudacek, whose one-time laser beat Kickert to the near side before he could slide across.
After killing off an Austrian power play a short time later, the Slovaks looked to build on their lead with some enormous pressure in the ninth minute, but Hudacek couldn’t quite find Simon Nemec alone in front, and Kickert made a huge kick save off Milos Kelemen.
Austria looked to be in big trouble after taking two penalties 11 seconds apart, but managed to kill them off and seemed to gain some momentum after that, holding their own for the rest of the period.
“Of course it wasn’t a perfect game, but I liked most of the first period and even part of the third, when we had some chances to tie the game,” said Bader. “Slovakia had more shots, more chances and more power plays but I thought we played a pretty good game.”
"It was a tough game for everyone playing for the first time this season,” said Slovak captain Marek Hrivik. “Especially in the third period, we felt tired and we lacked that game experience. But we won and we are moving on. I think it was obvious we hadn’t played yet and had only practiced a bit, but we won and next game will be better.”
Slovakia went back to the attack in the second period, attacking the net hard and drawing a crowd, and often pushing and shoving, after every whistle. Kickert was kept busy and kept his team in the game, particularly when he twice denied the dangerous Peter Cehlarik from point-blank range, but he might like the 2-0 goal back, on which Martin Gernat’s long shot from the left-wing boards snuck through his pads.
“When you look at the winning goal, it was just a shot from a bad angle that went through the goalie,” said Ramsay. “We keep talking about getting shots on net and getting in front of the goalie, and that’s what we have to do more of.”
Despite a 13-2 edge in shots and a similar edge in possession and territory, Slovakia still only led by two after two thanks to more brilliance from Kickert in the late going. After robbing Cehlarik with the glove with 20 seconds to go in the period, he denied a buzzer-beating attempt from teenaged phenom Juraj Slafkovsky.
“In the second period we had too many turnovers in the neutral zone,” said Austrian defenceman Clemens Unterwerger. “We made it too easy for the Slovaks to get into our end and we couldn't get out of the defensive zone.”
The Slovaks didn’t seem to be playing with a great deal of urgency through the first half of the third period, seemingly content to protect the puck and run down the clock. The Austrians took that chance and got on the board with 7:15 to play when Brian Lebler banged home a loose puck following a mad scramble in Konrad’s crease.
However, Austria’s comeback chances were seemingly dealt a serious blow just 36 seconds later when Lukas Haudum was penalized for an illegal check to the head – the referee’s took a long look the video, deciding whether or not to assess a major. |But it was the Austrians who nearly scored shorthanded, with a 2-on-1 rush and a swinging and a miss on the one-time attempt.
“In the first period I got into it completely, in the second I was standing in the goal, and fortunately we scored the second goal,” said Konrad. “In the third period I had to work again. It's too bad we didn't score the third goal; we could have put it away. But we survived, we got the three points and we can move on.”
The last 30 seconds were nervous as Austria pressed hard for the equalizer, but the Slovaks held on to earn three big points.
“At the end, everyone gave everything; 100 per cent for the team,” said Unterwerger. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t tie it, but we can be proud of ourselves and this Qualification definitely isn’t over.”