"I think we tried to control the game," said Adam Liska. "We had a lot of scoring chances, but then they got back into the game when they scored with the power play. Overall we played well. We just have to score more goals."
It was a big night for Slovak teenagers at the Helsinki Ice Hall. Adam Sykora, a 17-year-old HK Nitra winger, scored his first World Championship goal, and it turned out to be the winner.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Juraj Slafkovsky, the 2022 Olympic MVP on the Beijing bronze-medal team, notched two assists. Slafkovsky leads all Slovak skaters with seven points.
"Maybe on the scoreboard it doesn't show, but we played how we wanted to play, played our system," Slafkovsky said. "Of course, we made a few little mistakes, but overall it was good. Still, against better teams we need to play much, much better."
Michael Kristof and Alex Tamasi also scored for Slovakia. Captain Tomas Tatar added two assists.
Defenceman Alex Trivellato, appearing in his third game of these Worlds, had Italy's lone goal.
Coach Gregory Ireland's Italians, who remain winless with one point from their 2-1 overtime loss to France, face Kazakhstan in their last game on Monday. The loser of that game will be relegated.
"We didn't have any expectations about where we would finish," said Italian defenceman Dylan di Perna. "I think we've given a lot of teams a good run for their money. Unfortunately, it's all come down to one game now, so all we can do is prepare for that game."
For Slovak netminder Adam Huska, it was like deja vu. Slovakia outshot Italy by the same margin as in the 4-3 win over Kazakhstan: 34-17. Beleaguered Italian goalie Andreas Bernard battled hard to give his side a chance. In four starts, the HC Bolzano veteran has made more total saves (150) at this tournament than any other goalie so far.
The Slovak fans, who had been relatively restrained until that point, broke out into loud choruses of “Slovensko!”
Slovakia picked up its tempo. Bernard came up big when Samuel Takac broke in on a breakaway with five minutes left in the first, not biting on the 30-year-old Slovan Bratislava forward’s backhand deke.
Sykora scored the crushing 2-0 goal with just six seconds left in the opening frame. On the rush, Slafkovsky found the Piestany native cruising into the left faceoff circle, and he had time and space to cue up a zinger that beat Bernard high over the glove. Sykora's grin was a mile wide inside his cage.
"We are a young team," Liska said. "Every single shift we are getting better, getting more experience."
Shots through 20 minutes favoured Slovakia 15-6, and the score was a fair indication of how the momentum had shifted.
Near the two-minute mark of the scoreless second period, luck wasn't on Italy's side offensively. Defenceman Daniel Mantenuto hammered a drive through traffic off Huska's right post, and assistant captain Alex Petan dived to try and push the rebound past the goalie's right pad, but no dice.
Slovakia squandered two power play opportunities to one for Italy in the middle frame.
At 4:09 of the third period, the Azzurri broke through with the man advantage. Deftly fed by Simon Kostner, Trivellato unloaded a rising one-timer from the centre point and roared with satisfaction when it bulged the twine.
Just past the seven-minute mark of the third, Sykora was involved in an odd altercation with di Perna. In shot-blocking mode, Sykora got his glove on di Perna's shot from inside the blue line and di Perna then laid a cross-check on the 178-cm, 78-kg teen, who writhed on the ice. It was initially going to be a major, but after the officials reviewed the play, it was reduced to two minutes.
With three seconds left in that man advantage, Tamasi stretched Slovakia's lead to 3-1 at 9:14. Bernard stopped Robert Lantosi's initial shot and the follow-up by Michal Ivan, but couldn't prevent the 24-year-old HC 05 Banska Bystrica forward from putting the puck in at the side of the net.
"Our team spirit is very good, even though we haven't won every game," said Slafkovsky. "We've always managed to come back and play strong."
The Italians got Bernard out for the extra attacker with two and a half minutes remaining, but the best they could say was that they didn't allow Slovakia an empty-netter.
Di Perna took an optimistic tone: "Being in the last game can be a positive. Now that we've played six games during the tournament, I think everyone has settled in and knows their place on the team. We know what we want to do. It's going to be a big one for us."
Italy has now lost all seven of its World Championship games against Slovakia, going back to 1997. The Italians did secure a single point in the previous encounter, a 3-2 overtime loss in Cologne on 6 May, 2017. Peter Ceresnak notched the OT winner for Slovakia.