Slovakia has earned its rightful spot as part of hockey’s big seven, albeit the nation is currently the runt of international rink litters and far from being top dog.
But never make the mistake of thinking this proud hockey nation’s bark is bigger than its bite. Led by the sniping skills of Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik, backstopped by a much-improved Jaroslav Halak and with blue line beast Zdeno Chara easily tossing aside any player who dares to crash the net, Slovakia could well chomp into an Olympic medal.
Ranked tenth on the IIHF’s list heading into the Vancouver games, Slovakia’s best shot at a medal was slated to come from the the twin Marians, Hossa and Gaborik. Hossa might end up an Olympic singleton. During practice with the New York Rangers on February 9th, Gaborik tried to jump over goalie Henrik Lundqvist in a one-on-one drill only to end up with a lacerated leg. He sat out Wednesday’s game and only managed 4:02 TOI in Friday’s game versus Pittsburgh. Gaborik will likely sit out Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay so that the 21 stitches in his leg heal up in time for Slovakia’s game against the Czech Republic.
If Gaborik misses even a few games, the Slovaks will be hard pressed to replace his scoring touch – 35G, 34A in 58 NHL games. Marcel Hossa’s 32 goals for Dynamo Riga tops all other scorers in the KHL; compatriot Jozef Stumpel’s 37 assists are tied for second behind Alexei Yashin and Branko Radivojevic is a respectable eighth with 34 helpers. Slovak stalwart Zigmund Palffy leads the Slovak Extraliga in both points (53) and assists (36) but that’s the extent of the forward scoring threat.
Team Slovakia’s NHL forwards aside from Gaborik and Hossa, have collectively tallied 54 points, a far cry from the 89 that Russia’s Alexander Ovechkin has racked up.
Luckily that’s where the rearguards become front and centre. Slovakia’s blueliners have a knack for playmaking and leading the rush. Zdeno Chara and Lubomir Visnovsky’s combined 66 points are 12 more than what forwards Michal Handzus, Tomas Kopecky , Miroslav Satan and Pavol Demitra have mustered to date.
Slovakia’s biggest question mark was goaltending but Jaroslav Halak has steadily improved this season. The Montreal Canadiens netminder’s .923 SV% ranks him higher than Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist. Make no mistake that Halak is more than capable of stealing a game here and there, and in short tournaments, sometimes one thieving glove hand is swift enough to steal a medal.
The team’s biggest advantage heading into the Games is health. Other than Gaborik, no players have admitted to injuries.
This Central European nation has seen its fair share of ups and downs since achieving nationhood in 1993, the hockey high point being the 2002 World Hockey champions. Now if you’re under the mistaken impression this small landlocked country is in Eastern Europe, any Slovak will promptly set you straight, politely pointing out their capital city of Bratislava is merely an hour away from Vienna.
Beyond statistics, a glance through the Slovak roster mirrors aspects of key national traits. Like the domineering Tatra Mountains, a massive and chiselled Zdeno Chara towers over all the players to surround him.
Perhaps no player embodies Slovak resilience quite like Richard Zednik. Just as Slovakia long suffered foreign knives carving it apart, the forward recovered from his gruesome skate to the neck injury incurred February 10, 2008. He returned to the Florida Panthers the following season before moving onto his current team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. His production has remained steady with 18 points in 35 games but the winger’s biggest asset will be the proverbial intangibles he brings to the table.
Generations of Slovak men spent their lives toiling deep in the earth, digging deeper and deeper in their quest for coal. The modern day hockey equivalents will be mucking and grinding, digging deep into the offensive zone in their quest for gold, silver or bronze.