Slovakia moves closer to playoffs
by Andrew PODNIEKS|18 MAY 2024
photo: Matt Zambonin/IIHF
Slovakia played an impressive game before a loud and partisan Ostrava Arena crowd tonight, defeating France 4-2 and moving closer to one of the four coveted playoff spots in Group B.

It was a game that had major implications in the standings, particularly for the Slovaks. A loss would have meant they’d remain in fourth place with eight points, one more than Latvia, and making their head-to-head meeting tomorrow crucial to decide who would qualify for the playoffs. For France, a loss would take them out of the playoff picture. 

As it is, Slovakia now has a buffer with eleven points but still needs a win of any sort tomorrow to guarantee a spot in Thursday’s quarters. With games against Sweden and Germany still ahead, France can’t move on but they also can’t be relegated either.

Libor Hudacek had two goals and an assist for the victors who now have won four of five games (3-1-0-1) while the French have won only one of their five games (1-0-1-3).

"We knew it would be a hard-fought game," said Marek Hrivik. "They skated well and made it hard for us, so we're happy about the points. The game tomorrow is going to be one of the biggest ones in the group so we have to go out and play our best game. We have to be aggressive, get in their zone, out some pressure on them. They have a skilled team, good forwards. Obviously they had a big year last year, so we have to be prepared."

"We had a good game," offered French assistant captain Yohann Auvitu. "We know we can play even with these kinds of teams, so we're happy about that. But it's never easy for use to beat the big nations, and Slovakia is a big nation. I'm more happy about the confidence than the result. This tournament is always about staying up in the top group. The only thing that matters is that we show up to play every game and take the game to the opponent. That's what we did tonight, but two days ago against the U.S. was unacceptable, so we had to respond, and we did."

The first period was uneventful up until the end when Slovakia scored a goal right after one of the oddest calls you’ll ever see in a game. Pavol Regenda took a tripping penalty at 15:39, and as the penalty timekeeper opened the box to let Regenda out at 17:39, the puck slid right to the box. Regenda played the puck with one skate in the air, about to step on the ice, and the other still clearly in the penalty box, off ice. The referees rightly called him for interference, and back he went.

But then, when his second penalty expired, Slovakia was bringing the puck up ice. Renegda headed to the net and tipped a pass from Mario Grman that squirted between the pads of Sebastien Ylonen with only 3.1 seconds remaining in the period. 

Slovakia produced a more straightforward second as they added to their lead. Hudacek scored a highlight-reel goal at 3:35. He took the puck at the point, did a spin-o-rama to avoid a check from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and moved in on goal, firing a high shot that beat Ylonen cleanly.

Seven minutes later, Hudacek connected again, this time wiring a shot over the goalie’s shoulder. France got one back before the period expired when captain Sacha Treille got the puck in the slot and beat Samuel Hlavaj with a low shot before the goalie could get set.

Grman padded the lead midway through the third on another high, long shot, clearly Ylonen's weakness if you judge where the goals went. That made it a 4-1 game and gave the Slovaks a bit of a cushion as the game wound down.
France vs Slovakia - 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship