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.
2012 IIHF HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP
Malkin's trick leads Russia to FinalNHL.com
Evgeni Malkin scored a hat trick as Russia scored six straight goals to eliminate defending champion and co-host Finland with a 6-2 win Saturday in the semifinals of the 2012 IIHF World Hockey Championship. READ MORE ›
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.