|Michal Handzus one of 13 NHLers on Slovakia. |
With 13 NHLers and 10 non-NHLers, Slovakia fights for the respect it deserves among the "Big Six" -- Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, and United States. But just because the tiny Republic has to play the role of "true" underdog -- not the kind the Americans claim they are as a rallying cry -- doesn't mean it can't crash the podium party on Feb. 28.
The Slovaks are bringing quite a bit of skill and an exemplary work ethic that helps them hang with the big boys, just as they did in 2006 by going 5-0-0 in pool play and scoring wins against Russia, the U.S. and Sweden.
"I've coached a lot of Slovakian players, and they all have the same way about themselves," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Kind of low-key and go about trying to be the best they can quietly. Their approach every single day is to be the best they can and try to better themselves. As far as fanfare and glamour, they let their play speak for themselves."Goalies
Montreal's Jaroslav Halak is the undisputed No. 1 in a position where the Slovaks haven't produced many standouts. Halak could be the difference maker for a squad that already knows it can score and play defense.
"I met the Slovakian coach (Jan Filc) and general manager Peter Bondra when we were in Washington and they said, 'We're counting on you and hopefully you will get some starts before the Olympics to get your timing down,' " Halak told NHL.com.
Halak, Slovakia's Goaltender of the Year in 2009, has unofficially supplanted Carey Price as the top starter on the Canadiens, starting eight of the last nine games and nine of the last 13. As of Feb. 8, he was fifth in the League with a .927 save percentage en route to a 17-9-2 record with 3 shutouts. He's already recorded seven games with 40-plus saves.
Backup will be provided by Colorado's Peter Budaj and Rastislav Stana, who plays for Severstal Cherepovets in the KHL.Defensemen
This tower of power is massive, even if the "shrimpy" Lubomir Visnovsky (5-10, 188) brings down their overall height and weight average to 6-2.5 and 230.5. This group can bang, shoot and move the puck with the best of them.
Chara's incredible size (6-9, 255) is legendary, but he also has a point shot that breaks bones, literally (New Jersey's David Clarkson has been sidelined since Nov. 27 after taking Chara's slapper off his leg). Columbus' Milan Jurcina lacks Chara's offensive game, mobility and refinement, but is no less imposing at 6-4, 233.
Unlike past Olympic tournaments, all games in Vancouver will be played on NHL-sized rinks (200 feet by 85 feet), meaning Slovakia's imposing size on defense will be an advantage.
The undersized Visnovsky is the offensive catalyst from the blue line and he and Buffalo's Andrej Sekera (6-0, 197) will be vital to the transition game.
Former NHLer Richard Lintner was removed from the provisional roster due to injury and replaced by Ivan Baranka of Spartak Moscow from the KHL.Forwards
Fingers crossed, Marian Gaborik is still healthy and Marian Hossa appears all the way back from his summer shoulder surgery. Both are right wings, but it is not known how Filc will handle their roles. Whether they wind up on the same line or split up, there's no question both need to score and there's little reason to think they won't.
A big wild card is sublime playmaker Pavol Demitra, who recently returned to the Canucks after missing nine months because of two shoulder surgeries. He's still shaking off the rust that could keep him from being effective as a top-six forward, but he's earned the opportunity because of how respectful he is to Slovakia's national team.
Euro league standouts Zigmund Palffy, Lubos Bartecko and Branko Radivojevic are long in the tooth, but provide great experience outside the top-six grouping.
"They have some nice players on their team," Quenneville said. "They're going into that tournament a little under the radar, but they can beat anybody. Everybody can gain something by representing their country and competing for a championship."Star gazing
Name the only player who has placed in the top five in tournament scoring in the 2002 and 2006 Games. It's Hossa, and perhaps no player is as valuable to his team in 2010 as the goal-scoring giant.
"When you look at our roster, it looks pretty good on paper," said Hossa, a three-time 40-goal scorer. "You have to be optimistic. It's going to be great being in the tournament and I know we can surprise somebody."Striking it rich
You can discount the chances of Slovakia to medal, just as long as you don't count them out completely. They are better in goal and on defense than what they had to work with in 2006, and there're two lines capable of scoring. Sounds like a recipe that more than a few teams have used to win the Stanley Cup, and the Olympics aren't even a long grind. Two weeks of excellence is all you need.
"For our older generation of players, this is the last opportunity to play together in an exceptional tournament in Vancouver," Branko Radivojevic said. "This will not be easy. Look at the reports of Canada, Russia, Sweden or the Czech Republic. There will be many excellent teams, but we also want to play great hockey for our country. Slovakia gave me a chance to become a hockey player and this will be my last chance to return him back."
Contact Rocky Bonanno at email@example.com
Author: Rocky Bonanno | NHL.com Staff Writer