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Slovakia looking to upset high-powered Russia

Saturday, 05.19.2012 / 4:23 PM / 2012 IIHF World Championship

By Tal Pinchevsky - Staff Writer

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Slovakia looking to upset high-powered Russia
Sloavakia has been labelled an underdog all tournament long, and it's a title they'll try to use to their advantage against Russia.

Since dropping their first two games at the 2012 IIHF World Hockey Championship (3-2 to Canada and 1-0 to Finland), Slovakia has been labeled a tournament underdog. Even after winning seven straight games since those two losses, it's a label they're still trying to shake, especially against the Russians, who they will meet in the gold medal game of the Worlds on Sunday.

After defeating the top-seeded Canadians in the quarterfinals and conquering the Czechs in the semis, the Slovakians should have their work cut out for them in the championship final against a Russian squad that remains undefeated and boasts the tournament's top scorer in Evgeni Malkin, who outscored the entire Finnish team with three goals in the semifinal. With a plus-26 goal differential in the tournament -- more than double Slovakia's plus-11 mark -- the Russians have barely been tested and now have even greater depth up front with the arrival of Alex Ovechkin, who has scored twice in his two games with the Russian squad since arriving at the tournament.


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But Slovakia has two things going for it entering the championship. The first is the outstanding play of goaltender Jan Laco, who has become the tournament's premier backstop following his 36-save performance against the Czechs. The veteran of the Slovakian league has posted a .935 save percentage and 1.75 goals-against average (among the best in the tournament), and he has made big stop after big stop for his national team. Russian goaltender Semyon Varlamov has slightly better numbers (.940 save percentage, 1.74 GAA), but he has played almost 100 fewer minutes and faced 34 fewer shots.

If Laco can keep the championship game close through 40 minutes, it could truly be anyone's contest. Slovakia has outscored the opposition 10-1 in the third period, including a 2-0 advantage against the Czechs.

Of course, that advantage could be muted against a Russian squad that has outscored their opponents 16-2 in the third period. All things rendered equal, recent history also hasn't been kind to Slovakia, who hasn't beaten Russia at the World Championship since a 2-0 victory in 2004. That win was the last of three straight Slovakian wins over Russia at the Worlds; the only three Slovakian victories over Russia in tournament history. The Slovaks have fared better at the Olympics, where they have beaten the Russians twice in three matchups, including a 2-1 shootout win at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

If this tournament has proven anything so far, it's that any team can win any game at any time. If the Russians win Sunday, it would complete one of the great performances in recent World Championship history. But if the Slovaks win, it could be an upset for the ages.

Quote of the Day

This is a great day for me. This is something I've been thinking about for a long time. This is a great opportunity that the St. Louis Blues organization, (owner) Tom Stillman and Doug Armstrong are giving me and trusting me in doing...This is going to be a great challenge for me.

— Martin Brodeur, after announcing his retirement as an NHL player and becoming a senior adviser with the Blues on Thursday