Everyone loves an underdog, and for fans attending the 2009 World Junior Championship in Ottawa, that underdog was an undersized goalie with oversized hockey hair who helped engineer the biggest upset at the event.
Goaltender Jaroslav Janus
made 44 saves on 47 shots as Slovakia upset the U.S. team -- regarded as a gold-medal contender -- in a memorable quarterfinal, 5-3.
"It was in newspapers all over (the country)," Janus told NHL.com. "On TVs, magazines, newspapers -- it was everywhere."
Janus became the little goalie that could, and when he came out for his next game, a semifinal match with Sweden, his ovation rivaled those received by any Canadian player. And he nearly pulled off another miracle, stopping 31 of 32 shots through two periods as Slovakia led Sweden, 2-1. He and his teammates ran out of gas in the third, however, and Sweden scored four times to win 5-3. But Janus stopped 46 of 50 shots for the game, and despite Slovakia's 5-2 loss to Russia in the bronze-medal game, Janus was rewarded with a spot on the WJC All-Star team ahead of Sweden's Jacob Markstrom
, who was named the tournament's top goaltender.
"It was pretty cool," Janus said. "I have great memories. ... It was awesome. ... It was great to play under pressure and against the best players in the world."
When the tournament ended, Janus returned to his junior team, the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters, a different player. Unfortunately, it wasn't a change for the better.
"The first two weeks he got back, I could have shot my desk and it would have gone in," said Otters GM Sherry Bassin.
It took a while, but Janus got past his WJC hangover and returned to playing strong hockey. His stats with Erie aren't overly impressive -- 25-20-4, 3.24 goals-against average, .908 save percentage -- but he played behind much of the same Erie team that won just 18 games last season. This season, that same group won 34 games and made the playoffs. They drew the powerhouse London Knights in the first round and went out in five games, but Janus was far from the reason they lost.
"I saw him in a playoff game in London, and they gave him a mercy pulling there," NHL Central Scouting's Al Jensen told NHL.com. "It wasn't his fault. Without him it wouldn't have been close. It was a game after two periods. He really, really impressed me."
This will be Janus' second time through selection process. He went undrafted last year, a surprise to scouts as well as those close to him.
"I was surprised that he got picked over last year, to be quite honest," said Jensen. "I was quite impressed with him last year and I'm quite impressed with him this year."
"I've told teams, 'How can you not take a chance on this kid in the sixth or seventh rounds?'" Bassin said. "I think he's going to get a lot better. He's the kind of goalie teams love to play in front of. He's got great reflexes. He's a quiet, determined kid, doesn't ask for a lot. Never complains. ... Players love to play in front of him. I've had goalies that have played in the NHL, and they say I was screened or this happened, but he'll say I let in a (bad) goal, I was awful."
Bassin said Janus' experience reminds him of a goaltender from a generation ago when he worked for the Oshawa Generals.
"I had this kid, played a few years in the NHL, we had him playing Junior B the first year," said Bassin. "There's a whole bunch of NHL teams in to watch him, he's up for the draft. I won't name the teams, but I said this guy is a goaltender, I said take him late. They come to the game, they pulled him after seven or eight goals, team got beat like 400-2. They're all looking at me."
The goalie went undrafted, but the next season Jeff Hackett
took the Generals to the 1987 Memorial Cup. He was a second-round pick of the New York Islanders
and spent 15 seasons in the NHL.
Janus admits he was sour over not getting picked last year, and refuses to worry about what will happen this June. He was 11th in Central Scouting's final ranking of North American goaltenders for the 2008 Entry Draft; after being No. 18 in this year's midterm rankings, he is 13th in this year's final rankings.
"Last year I was sad that I didn't get drafted, but it's life and you never know what's going to happen, maybe next year," he said. "You don't have to get drafted to play in the NHL. I didn't get drafted last year and I was sad. This year, I don't really think about it. I have things going on back home."
Back home is training for the World Championships, which start April 24 in Switzerland. Peter Budaj
will start for Slovakia, but depending on how Jaroslav Halak
and the Montreal Canadiens
do in the playoffs, Janus could serve as the backup.
If he is No. 2, there's a chance he could see some action in another elite-level tournament, just like the WJC.
"(The WJC) probably finally opened up eyes of what he can really do," said Jensen. "He was on stage and he performed. It shows he can play under pressure, play in the big games and that's top-caliber hockey. I'm sure all the NHL scouts and management is thinking this kid can play. I can't see someone not picking him now. I just can't."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.