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Slovakia nearly pulls off another stunner

by John Dellapina
VANCOUVER -- It was in a down cycle as a hockey nation and set up to fail. That's what Slovakia's results in recent international competitions and the schedule and grouping it drew for this Olympic tournament made clear.

Throw in the injuries that left its top two forwards, Marian Gaborik (lacerated thigh) and Marian Hossa (concussion) diminished, and it was obvious that Slovakia was not going to come close to reproducing the Olympic magic it had four years ago in Torino. And that, when the medal-determining games were being played, Slovakia's 13 NHLers already would be back with their respective teams, preparing for the stretch run to the playoffs.

Obvious to everybody, that is, except captain Zdeno Chara and goaltender Jaroslav Halak and the rest of the Slovak players. And head coach Jan Filc, who maximized what he had in game plans that took down the frightening Russians in group play and the defending champion Swedes in the quarterfinals, and had the mighty, homestanding Canadians hanging on for dear life in the dying seconds of Friday night's pedestrian-until-it-was-spine-tingling semifinal at Canada Hockey Place.

"We hoped that our team would be a part of very nice theater," Filc said. "We played with heart, we desired and we wanted."

It was all nearly enough to get the Slovaks to the Olympic final and a date with Team USA. Instead, they will play Finland on Saturday night for bronze.

"I'm very proud of my team," said Hossa, who overcame the concussion he had suffered in the Chicago Blackhawks penultimate game before the Olympic break but has managed only two goals to go with his five assists in Slovakia's six games. "We have a great chance tomorrow. We just have to regroup because we had a really tough game. But you know what? That would be a dream come true if we got third place."

The dream of playing in the final was dying a quiet death -- Gaborik done for the game after two periods -- until defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky wheeled around Chris Pronger and found the space between the crook of Canadian goaltender Roberto Luongo's left knee and the near post with 8:25 remaining.

When Richard Zednik outworked two Canadians to put a puck in front that Michal Handzus batted over Luongo 3:32 later, it suddenly was 3-2 and Filc's plan of not even attempting to attack through two periods finally was making sense.

"We knew were facing almost the best team ever," Hossa said. "You can almost compare this to all the Russian teams from way back. They have four great lines. They're so hard to play against. We knew we had little chance but we gave them a fair fight.

"We were patient and we tried to make it a boring game. And the plan was working even though it was 3-0. Then we scored a couple of goals and, all of a sudden, it was a game and everybody in the building was a little scared."

The fear among the Canadian faithful, who had spent the early part of the third chanting "We want the USA!" did not abate until Luongo got just enough of his outstretched catching glove on a put-back by Pavol Demitra off the right post with 8 seconds left.

"You know, with a little bit of luck in the end, it could have been 3-3," Hossa said. "Even though they outscored us and outshot us, I think we put up a fair fight."

The Slovaks put up more of a fight than anybody had any right to expect. And while a bronze-medal match might be small consolation to Canada or Russia or Sweden, it is a big deal to the little team that nearly took down all three.

"Well, it's been a nice run, but obviously tomorrow is our last game and we want to finish the tournament right and get a medal," Chara said. "It's going to be just ‘a nice run' without a medal. With a medal it's going to be a helluva experience and a life-long experience and achievement."

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