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Slovakia vs. Russia

NHL.com @NHL

A forgetful showing in 2002 hasn't stopped Slovakia from entering the Torino games with hopes of its first Olympic medal.

The Slovaks begin preliminary-round play Wednesday when they face defending Olympic bronze medalist Russia.

Grouped with Germany, Latvia and Austria in Group A of the preliminary round in Salt Lake City, a round that began before NHL players were released for the Olympic break, Slovakia struggled to field a full roster and was bounced out after going winless in group play.

At the same time, powerhouses Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the United States of America, collectively dubbed "The Super 6," were able to bypass the preliminaries and enter the final round of eight with their respective rosters intact.

Los Angeles Kings center and leading scorer Pavol Demitra, who played in his first Olympics for Slovakia that year, notching a goal and two assists, is thrilled his country gets another chance to prove itself on hockey's biggest stage.

"In Salt Lake City, I got to play two games, but we didn't have all our players because the NHL was still going. We never really had a chance," said Demitra.

After a huge uproar following those Olympics, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) agreed to change the format so all teams would have an equal opportunity to field the best rosters.

Demitra leads a Slovakian team in Torino ranked fourth in the world and boasting a roster full of proven NHL players, including Marian Hossa and Peter Bondra of the Atlanta Thrashers, Marian Gaborik of the Minnesota Wild, Miroslav Satan of the New York Islanders, Marek Svatos of the Colorado Avalanche, Michal Handzus of the Philadelphia Flyers, Lubomir Visnovsky of the Kings and Zdeno Chara of the Ottawa Senators.

With plenty of offensive firepower behind him, Peter Budaj of the Avalanche is the first NHL-proven goalie for the Slovaks in the Olympics. The 23-year-old Budaj has played 19 games for Colorado this season, compiling a 7-5-4 mark and 2.62 goals-against average.

"That's the only thing we're missing from being one of the best teams in the world because Canada and other teams have superstars in net," said Demitra. "But finally, Slovakia has an NHL goalie like Peter Budaj. And that's great."

Russia's goaltending situation, meanwhile, is not as certain.

Veteran Nikolai Khabibulin of the Chicago Blackhawks, who backstopped Russia in 2002, is out with a sprained knee. His absence means Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks and Ilya Bryzgalov of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks are the goaltenders this time.

The duo has combined for 147 NHL wins compared to Khabibulin's 221, but that doesn't concern right wing and two-time Olympian Maxim Afinogenov of the Buffalo Sabres.

"I think we're going to have a pretty good team," Afinogenov said. "We're going for the best there."

General manager Pavel Bure has assembled a young team compared to past Russian teams, but its roster is still talented enough to compete for the gold.

The Russians are ranked fifth in the world and have 17 NHL players on their roster, including Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, Ilya Kovalchuk of the Thrashers, Alexei Kovalev of the Montreal Canadiens, Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings and Alexei Yashin of the Islanders.

Defenseman Darius Kasparaitis of the New York Rangers also is back for his fourth Olympics after winning gold in 1992, silver in 1998 and the bronze in 2002.

"You can't dwell on those things," Kasparaitis said of losing Khabibulin. "It's a big loss, but we have to go with what we have. The tournament is going to be won by whoever has a good goaltender. Everyone can score goals."

Slovakia last met Russia in the Lillehammer games in 1994, losing 3-2 in the quarterfinals and finishing sixth overall, its best Olympics finish. The Slovaks were 10th in Nagano in 1998 and 13th in Salt Lake City, while Russia won the silver in 1998 and were fourth in 1994.

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