The Slovaks haven’t yet qualified for the 2022 Winter Olympics, but they’re close. After beating Poland 5-1 to win their second-straight game in the Group D Qualifier, they will need only a single point from Sunday’s game against Belarus to advance.
“I saw a solid game from all four lines, and that was nice to see,” said Slovak coach Craig Ramsay. “Sometimes we make it hard on ourselves and we had trouble scoring, but today, for the most part, we played the right way.”
As for the Poles, who opened the tournament with a shocking 1-0 win over Belarus, they could have qualified outright with a regulation win and made Sunday’s games moot. They hung around for a while.
“The Slovak team has very good skaters,” said Polish head coach Robert Kalaber. “We try to neutralize this by playing with character but this was a lesson for the Polish team.”
It was no surprise that Slovakia came out storming or that Poland employed the same rope-a-dope style that was successful yesterday. It worked for eight minutes, during which time the Slovaks outshot Poland 7-1 but failed to score.
At that point, the Slovaks were pressing and Adam Ruzicka attempted to go wide and was tripped by the legs of the sliding Murray. As Ruzicka went down, his centring attempt went off the skate of Polish defenceman Jakub Wanacki and into the net. Polish coach Robert Kalaber challenged the play for offside, and it was close, but the play was eventually ruled to be onside and the goal counted, resulting in a delay-of-game penalty.
“I didn’t really see what happened but, hey, at the end of the day it’s a goal and it’s my first one (with the national team) so I’m happy for it,” said Ruzicka.
“It was a really tough game for us,” said Polish captain Krystian Dziubinski, who scored the lone Polish goal. “We started pretty well but that first goal set us back a little bit. They skate very well and minute by minute, they got better.”
The Slovaks continued to press, outshooting Poland 21-7 in the opening 20 minutes but they couldn’t put another puck past Murray, whose play was reminiscent of his shutout yesterday. As they did against Austria, the Slovaks frequently drove hard to the net in an attempt to throw the goalie off his game. Poland’s best chance in the opening period came from Grzegorsz Pasiut, whose shot hit the crossbar and bounced out of play.
“We tried to make it interesting in that first period,” said Ramsay. “We got off and running and then we decided to make some backhand passes and fancy plays that didn’t work. We gave them an opportunity to get back into the game. The coaching staff wasn’t very happy and we wanted them to know that that isn’t how we play hockey here anymore. We play to win.”
If there was a lesson for Slovakia to learn from yesterday’s game against Austria, it’s to put teams away when you have the chance, rather than let them linger around in the game and make things interesting at the end. The Slovaks got themselves a bit of breathing room in the second period by outscoring Poland 3-1, starting with a pair of goals in the first seven minutes of the period.
First it was Libor Hudacek on the rush, cutting in from the left wing and beating Murray with a wrister to the blocker side.
“I received the pass from Peter Ceresnak between the circles and I waited for Marko Dano to skate in front and then I shot and I scored,” said Hudacek.
Then 1:33 later, 17-year-olds Simon Nemec and Juraj Slafkovsky helped set up 21-year-old Milos Roman right in front, who moved to his backhand and went upstairs over Murray’s glove.
“Those two young men played extremely well,” Ramsay said of Nemec and Slafkovsky. “I think they learn something every time they play against men. Slavo made a tremendous pass on a goal by Roman – it was nice to see him get in the lineup and score a nice goal – and Nemec played a lot of minutes right till the end.
“We don’t take them because they’re boys. We take them because they’re great players.”
Poland got on the board on the power play just past the game’s midpoint, with Alan Lyszczarczyk earning his second assist in the tournament, setting up Dziubinski from behind the net, and Dziubinski beating Konrad with a one-timer.
But the Slovaks restored their three-goal lead just over two minutes later on a power play of their own, with sniper Peter Cehlarik taking his time and picking a corner after receiving a pass from Hudacek.
“In my opinion, the Slovaks just skate faster (than Belarus) and we gave them too much space,” said defenceman Mateusz Bryk. “They made many good passes and we lost our positions.”
Slovakia added one more goal in the third period, with Ruzicka picking up his second of the game with a chest-high deflection of Kristian Pospisil’s point shot with just under 12 minutes to play. Video replay was needed to confirm that it wasn’t a high stick, but either way, there was little doubt about the outcome at that point.
“It was a similar game (to yesterday) but we owned them and we played our best in the second and third periods, and scored some nice goals on the power play,” said Ruzicka. “It’s good for us, we can take a day off and prepare for the next one.”