Throughout the tournament, the Slovaks have been quietly confident that they could get to the medal games. After a 3-2 victory over last year’s bronze medallists, Tibor Tartal’s youngsters can dream of bringing home hardware for only the second time in their country’s history.
"I think we can go all the way," said defender Leo Eperjesi. "We're not afraid of anybody."
It was a hard-fought win, with goalie Samuel Urban stopping 54 shots, 27 of them in a third-period fusillade as Finland battled to retrieve a 0-3 deficit. The netminder recently moved to play in the USA and Eperjesi thinks that helped him reach a new level.
The first quarter-final to be played in Ajoie was set up for drama – and got it from the first minute. Slovakia, very much the outsider again a Finland team looking to improve on last year’s bronze medal, stunned everyone with a goal after just 36 seconds. Eperjesi fired in a shot that flashed off the post and Dalibor Dvorsky was never going to miss an uncontested rebound into a wide-open net.
Finland had little choice but to push forward in search of a tying goal. For long periods, Samuel Urban’s net was under siege, but Slovakia defended stoutly. And when the defence was exposed, Finland found the puck would not go to the stick, as when Rasmus Kumpulainen’s inviting feed narrowly failed to find Emil Jarventie on the slot.
Late in the first, there were signs that Slovakia’s defence was tiring. Finland got the first power play of the game, and shortly after the teams returned to full strength Eperjesi got caught in possession bringing the puck out of the zone. As he tried to recover, he fouled Topias Hynninen to give the Finns a man advantage at the start of the second period. Slovakia had to dig deep.
"We really playing as a team here," Eperjesi added. "We're one big family, everybody plays for each other. That's what makes this group so special."
Here, a special team spiked Finland's special teams. Tuomas Uronen’s high stick reprieved the Slovak PK and then offered a man advantage to the underdog. Instantly, the game changed. Slovakia, limited to just four shots in the first period, had a couple of good looks before Dvorsky fizzed the puck in from the right-hand circle and Patrik Masnica steered it into the net.
Finland sought an instant response, with captain Kasper Halttunen’s big blast flashing wide, then Urban coming up with the save after a three-on-one breakaway put Slovakia in danger. While creating chances, the Finns were also burning through plenty of energy on offence and there were signs that the crisp attacking play of the early stages was starting to go astray.
"It was a tough game," Halttunen said. "We were pushing hard, we were getting chances but we had to score. We had to be more efficient in front of the net.
"We had chances to pull the game back but we couldn't take them. Sometimes, that's hockey."
There was no questioning Slovakia's efficiency, with one goal from four shots in the first perid, then two from nine in the second. In the 34th minute, Juraj Pekarcik, an under-rated component of his country’s offence, got the puck on the blue line and sprinted into the Finnish zone. His cross-ice feed was perfectly placed for Adam Cedzo make it 3-0. Now the upset was well and truly on.
Finland needed a big start to the third period, and the Leijonat’s pressure told at last when Halttunen got his team on the scoreboard. The captain collected a deflected feed from Jimi Jankkari and turned to shoot home from between the hash marks. Almost immediately, Urban had to make another big stop to deny Jarventie after the forward surged clear of three opponents. A second Finnish goal in quick succession might have turned the game’s momentum decisively.
Instead, Finland continued to hammer on the Slovak door. In a frantic finale, Halttunen fired against the base of the post, Jesse Nurmi saw the puck fly across the front of an open net and Slovakia was unable to get the puck clear of its zone. But time was against the Finns, despite Jarventie finding the net from close range with 10 seconds to play.
"The coach said that we have to leave everything that we have," Eperjesi said. "We had to block every shot, use our sticks, do whatever it takes."
That's the attitude that has taken newly-promoted Slovakia to the final four of this tournament.