As was the case in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Sweden was a gold medal favourite heading into action against Slovakia last night. They’d won every game of the preliminaries and shutout Finland 3-0 in their most challenging game, and were poised for a top-four finish if they could get a victory over a relatively easy opponent.
The magnitude of their loss to Slovakia last night is not in the same ballpark as the infamous 2002 loss to Belarus, because Slovakia is a much more respectable opponent. That said, Friday’s matchup just got a little easier for Canada, who could have been considered the underdogs in a game against the Swedes.
By winning last night and guaranteeing a top-four slot, the Slovakians have already made Olympic history for their nation, whose best ever finish came in Turin where they placed fifth. They’ve had some success at the World Championships (winning three medals in four years between 2000 and 2003) but are coming off a disappointing 10th-place finish in last year’s tournament.
The strength of their roster starts in net, where Jaroslav Halak gives the nation its best-ever goaltender, but it doesn’t stop there. The defence has some formidable names, and every single player on the team has NHL experience. We’ll take a more detailed look at their roster below.
Jaroslav Halak has been splendid for Montreal this season, single-handedly winning some games and threatening to push Carey Price out of the team’s long-term plans. His even-strength save percentage this season is tied for fourth in the NHL with Miikka Kiprusoff, one point back of Roberto Luongo and one ahead of Ryan Miller. He can steal a win at any time, and the Canadians should be worried about him. He’s also been brilliant in the shootout over his career, with a 7-2 record and .800 SV%. This season he’s been perfect, with a 3-0 record and no goals against.
Backups Peter Budaj and Rastislav Stana have not played so much as a minute in net.
Zdeno Chara – The team captain is a two-way threat at the NHL level, but it’s not his offence the Slovaks will be relying on here. He’ll be counted on to shut down the Canadian offence and counter their physical game.
Lubomir Visnovsky – The Edmonton Oilers’ best defenceman is brilliant offensively, a poised puck mover at even-strength and lethal on the power play. He’s a high-end player who is used to neutralizing top NHL forwards through speed and smarts.
Andrej Meszaros – Meszaros has struggled since leaving Ottawa for Tampa Bay. He’s been relied on to handle a shutdown role and he’s okay at it but still represents a drop-off from the top end of this unit. He does add some needed size, however.
Milan Jurcina and Andrej Sekera are both NHL depth players, albeit ones with divergent skill-sets. Jurcina’s a big stay-at-home type who plays a disciplined game, while Sekera is a smallish puck-mover who does a good job in the role but doesn’t generally play against good players or in tough situations.
Martin Strbak is a high-end two-way player in the KHL and probably could have had an NHL career; he played very well for Pittsburgh in 2003-04 before heading overseas during the lockout and then staying there. Ivan Baranka is WHL-trained and had a few nice seasons in the AHL as well as one game with the Rangers. He wasn’t initially named to the team, but has had a breakout KHL campaign and made it as an injury replacement.
Six current NHL’ers form the nucleus of the Slovakian offence, but they’re augmented with long-time Slovak stars now playing in various European leagues. It’s not a group of the same calibre as the Canadians or the Swedes, but then again they beat Sweden last night and cannot be taken lightly.
There are some high-end offensive players on this team. Marian Gaborik, when healthy, is one of the NHL’s most dynamic goal scorers. He has just four points in five games, but leads the team with three goals – two of them on Slovakia’s dynamic power play. Marian Hossa is tied for the team points lead with seven and is always a threat. Vancouver fans will be thrilled to know that Pavol Demitra seems to have made it back to his pre-injury form in a big hurry: he’s tied with Hossa for the team scoring lead. Michal Handzus has played very well and Miroslav Satan and Tomas Kopecky round out the NHL contingent.
Zigmund Palffy leads the top Slovak league with 52 goals and 99 points in 53 games, and I don’t imagine anyone’s forgotten the six-time 30+ NHL goal-scorer in North America either. Jozef Stumpel sits just shy of the 1000-game mark in the NHL but for two seasons has been one of the top offensive threats in the KHL. Richard Zednik is another longtime NHL’er, and while he’s had a disappointing KHL season offensively he’s a capable two-way player. Branko Radivojevic was a pretty good offensive player in junior but emerged as a solid defensive specialist in the NHL; he’s recaptured his offence in Moscow and is just below a point-per-game pace in the KHL.Lubos Bartecko had a couple of fairly good seasons (with St. Louis and Atlanta) early in the decade and has spent the last few years bouncing around Europe, posting good numbers in Sweden, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Marcel Hossa was never able to find success at the NHL level despite flashes of potential but he’s another player who has flourished in Russia. Rounding out the forward corps is Martin Cibak, who adds a physical element but not much else. He had a 154-game stint with the Tampa Bay Lightining and plays the role of spare forward for the Slovaks, averaging just over 6:00 minutes per game.