-- Slovakia did its part Saturday night to make Rivalry Sunday relevant for its hockey team, dissecting Latvia 6-0.
Slovakia, sort of the seventh team on the outside looking in at the so-called Big Six of this Olympic tournament, will now actually root for its own archrival, the Czech Republic, to beat Russia. Such a victory would earn second place for the Slovaks and, presumably, land them an easier qualifying game on Tuesday. Russia and the Czechs play the early game Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, TSN), so at least Slovakia won’t have to wait on the result.
"It's good for us to fly under the radar," Slovakia and Chicago Blackhawks star Marian Hossa told NHL.com in a one-on-one interview after the game. "Tonight we made it look easy. Latvia is a good team, but they played last night. Our plan was get a jump on them early."
Good plan. Lubomir Visnovsky, Richard Zednik and Jozef Stumpel clipped off first-period goals as the Slovaks outshot the Latvians 13 to 5. Latvia goalie Edgars Masalskis didn’t stand a chance on any of the three goals.
Hossa was impressed with former NHLer Zednik and his checking linemates, Michal Handzus of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and Lubos Bartecko, who plays for Farjestad Karlstad of the Swedish Elite League.
"They are playing with a lot of energy," Hossa said. "They shut Russia's No. 1 line and tonight they scored too."
For his part, Hossa appreciates his time on a line with brother Marcel, who plays professionally for Dinamo Riga, a Latvia-based club in the KHL.
"I am enjoying every minute of it," Hossa said. "We don't get too many opportunities to play together."
The Hossa brothers do make a phone appointment without fail once a week, and right now the togetherness of the entire Slovak team makes it dangerous for any Olympic foe.
"We have some older players on this team," Hossa said. "I think that is good for this team and this Olympics."
Make no mistake about Saturday’s win. It was surgical, as the Slovaks came out flying with hard, accurate shots. Both Zednik and Stumpel rocketed roof shots just inside the crossbar to beat Masalskis.
The precision shooting and scoring continued in the second period. Hossa scored the fourth Slovakia goal on a power play, finishing a perfect pass from Stumpel. Handzus, who came into the Winter Games on one of the NHL’s hottest scoring streaks, notched the fifth goal unassisted.
Defenseman Ivan Baranka was credited with the sixth goal late in the game, and goalie Jaroslav Halak looked sharp. Halak has benefited from starting eight of the last nine games for his Montreal Canadiens club, effectively reversing roles with former No. 1 goalie Carey Price. That regular work appears to have sharpened Halak’s game, and it might be no small thing in the medal round.
Say this: There’s not a team in the Big Six that wants to see this team in Tuesday’s qualifying round or the quarterfinals.
0 0 0 - 0
3 2 1 - 6
1. SVK, Visnovsky (Stumpel, Zednik) 2:44 (PPG)
2. SVK, Zednik (Handzus, Bartecko) 9:11
3. SVK, Stumpel (Palffy) 17:08
- M. Redlihs LAT (high sticking) 2:10, K. Redlihs LAT (hooking) 20:00.
4. SVK, Marian Hossa (Stumpel) 1:07 (PPG)
5. SVK, Handzus (Unassisted) 2:20
Penalties - Ankipans LAT (tripping) 6:28, Palffy (hooking) SVK 15:02, Demitra (holding) 19:19.
6. SVK, Baranka (Handzus, Strbak) 17:20
Penalties - Palffy SVK (hooking) 8:06, Palffy SVK (interference) 11:23.
SHOTS ON GOAL
5 10 6 - 21
13 15 9 - 37
(goals-shots against) - LAT: Masalskis (L, 5-37); SVK: Halak (W, 0-21).
(goals-chances) - LAT: 0-4; SVK: 2-3.