Slovakia's Laco no longer an unknown

Sunday, 02.16.2014 / 1:09 PM / 2014 Olympics

By Corey Masisak - Staff Writer

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Slovakia's Laco no longer an unknown
Few who follow the NHL might have known Slovakia goalie Jan Laco before Sunday, but after his performance in a losing effort against Russia, they know him now

SOCHI -- Slovakia captain Zdeno Chara seemed a little bewildered by the question.

Jan Laco had just authored possibly the greatest performance of his life Sunday, stopping all 36 shots he faced in regulation and overtime to force a shootout in a 1-0 loss to Russia. Chara was asked about his goaltender, and the idea that the 32-year-old basically is an unknown hockey player in North America.

"He's the same goalie we had a couple years ago in Finland when we finished second [at the 2012 IIHF World Championship], so I think a lot of people know about him," Chara said. "Maybe he's not familiar from the NHL, but I think especially in Slovakia people know him."

People in North America know Laco now. He, with the help of a restructured defensive system, stymied the vaunted Russia attack for 65 minutes before Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk scored in the shootout.

Laco was a surprise starter Sunday. St. Louis Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak has been the No. 1 player (when available) for years with the Slovakian national team, and he played the first two games of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. When Halak was pulled in the opener against the United States, coach Vladimir Vujtek went to Slovakia's other NHL goaltender, Peter Budaj of the Montreal Canadiens, in relief.

Vujtek started Laco Sunday and was rewarded for the decision.

"[Laco] was amazing. He kept us in the game," Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Andrej Meszaros said. "We had some chances but we helped him too defensively. That's what teams do. The goalie helps us and we help the goalie."

Fans who follow the World Championship know about Laco's run with Slovakia two years ago. He was named the top goaltender in the tournament, earning the starting assignment because Halak was playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Laco helped Slovakia defeat Canada in the quarterfinals and the Czech Republic in the semifinals but lost to Russia 6-2 in the gold-medal game. He exacted a measure of revenge Sunday, stifling a lineup with some of the top offensive players in the world and ensuring Russia cannot earn a bye into the quarterfinals.

"It was a hot goalie and the luck was on their side," Kovalchuk said. "We hit a couple posts, missed a couple empty nets. But what are you going to do? That's the way it is. We have to find a way to go through that."

The 2012 World Championship was Laco's only significant experience at the highest international levels before Sunday. He plays for Donbass Donetsk in the Kontinental Hockey League, but is the team's backup, playing behind former goaltender Michael Leighton, who joined the team at the start of the season.

Vujtek did not care to divulge who his starting goaltender will be Tuesday, when the Slovaks face the Czech Republic in the qualification playoffs. Laco also was non-committal about where this game ranked among his career performances.

"It is hard to say," Laco said. "We did not win and you play the games to win. It was a good game but we were still unsuccessful. … We have been well prepared for the game and I think we played very well even though the last period was really hard."