Who'll win the bronze battle?
by Lucas Aykroyd|30 APR 2023
After losing 4-3 to Canada in the group stage, Slovakia hopes to win the bronze medal rematch at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.
photo: Chris Tanouye / IIHF
Do you remember what you were doing in 2003? If so, you don’t play for the Slovak U18 national hockey team. None of them was born then. But they all know how much it would mean to break a 20-year medal drought at the U18 Worlds.

At the ‘03 tournament, goalie Jaroslav Halak and defenceman Andrej Meszaros helped Slovakia capture the silver medal. This year, Dalibor Dvorsky’s high-scoring line has propelled the Central European nation into the bronze medal game. And even after a tough 7-1 semi-final loss to the U.S., the underdog Slovaks will be raring to go against Canada (15:00, Basel).
“I think we can play against anybody because of our grit and willpower,” said Slovak captain Maxim Strbak. “That's our biggest thing. We're never going to give up.”

In the group stage, Slovakia battled back from a 3-0 deficit but fell 4-3 to Canada. What the Slovaks could use in this rematch is a stronger first period. Their third periods have been excellent.
Except when facing the Americans, coach Tibor Tartal’s group has either outscored (Canada, Germany, Finland) or tied (Czechia, Sweden) their opponents in the third period.

In many aspects, Slovakia can go head-to-head with Canada this year. The Dvorsky line with Juraj Pekarcik and Adam Cedzo has produced the same number of goals (13) as Canada’s top line with Macklin Celebrini, Matthew Wood and Calum Ritchie. Both Dvorsky and Celebrini are likely to get some consideration for a tournament all-star team berth.

Slovak goalie Samuel Urban, despite getting pulled against the U.S., has a better save percentage (90.8) than any Canadian netminder.

Both teams are close to 35 percent on the power play. Meanwhile, Canada’s penalty kill has allowed six goals on 21 disadvantages, compared to Slovakia surrendering seven goals on 19 disadvantages.

With all that said, unlike some past years, you can’t expect Canada to deliver a sub-par effort if it’s not a gold medal game. Just because the Canadians suffered two lopsided losses to defending champion Sweden – 8-0 in the round-robin and 7-2 in the semi-final – doesn’t mean they can’t beat Slovakia again.
“Canadian pride comes into it,” said coach Jeff Truitt. “We want to win our last game. We’ve built together. We've obviously improved since the first day we were together. We've got a lot of skill and a lot of character. We want to bring something home.”

What must Slovakia do to cap off its Cinderella run with its third U18 medal of all time (including 1999’s bronze)? Being opportunistic is essential.

Of Canada’s semi-final downfall against Sweden, Canadian captain Cam Allen said: “They capitalized on all the opportunities we gave them. I feel like we gave them a little too much there and they made the most of it.”

Whichever team gets the early jump is likely to prevail. Canada is simply hoping to salvage something, while the Slovaks want to emulate their big brothers who won Olympic bronze last year in Beijing.
“I think we’re going up,” Strbak said of Slovak hockey’s recent revival. “We always try our best and hope for the best in these tournaments.”

If the Slovaks deliver a bronze medal against Canada on Sunday, kids watching back home in Bratislava and Kosice will certainly remember what they were doing in 2023. It’s a battle for third place that is virtually a coin flip.