Wednesday, February 10, 2010
The third highest seeded team in Group B at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Men's Ice Hockey Tournament is Slovakia.
The Slovakia National Ice Hockey Team is currently ranked 9th in the IIHF World Rankings, a ranking that can be seen as deceptive given Slovakia's recent performances in the World Championships. Slovakia has placed a lowly 13th in 2008 and 10th in 2009, but with rosters devoid of many NHL stars who were otherwise occupied by participating in the NHL playoffs or passed on participating in the World Championships to heal nagging injuries from the long, just concluded NHL season. Once stocked with the best Slovakia has to offer, look for a much stronger team than one rated 9th behind Belarus and Swizerland.
Based on their status as one of the top nine ranked countries, Slovakia was automatically entered in the 2010 Olympic tournament, allowing them avoid the qualification process for teams outside the top nine.
The Slovaks have participated in the Olympics in ice hockey four times since 1994 after the division of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with finishes of 6th in 1994 and 5th the last time out in Torino, a result more in line with what is possible when fielding a roster without any restrictions, such as those faced in 2002 when the NHL did not break in time for Slovakia's best players to compete in the early Preliminary Round, costing them a chance to advance to the Final Round group stage when their star players, such as Peter Bondra, Josef Stumpel, Ziggy Palffy, Pavol Demitra, Marian Hossa, Miroslav Satan and Zedeno Chara, were either unavailable or limited to a game or two at best.
Slovakia proved the unfairness of this system by winning the World Championship just two months later when allowed to field a more complete roster, which resulted in the Olympic schedule being altered to match the NHL schedule break starting in 2006 to prevent such an occurrence from happening again.
In 2006, the Slovaks, now with a complete lineup of stars thanks to the format changes, ran through the preliminary round with a perfect 5-0 record which included wins over Russia, Sweden and the United States, only to be eliminated from the tournament in the first knockout games of the quarterfinals by their rivals the Czechs, who had only gone 2-3 in the preliminary round. It was a quick and disappointing end of the tournament for the Slovakians, and one they will be hoping to improve upon this time out.
Since gaining their independence, Slovakia have been regular participants in the World Championships, first being assigned to Pool C as a new country, the lowest rung of the ladder system, despite the Czechs remaining in the Top Divison. They proved their point by immediately winning Pool C in 1994 and followed that by winning Pool B the following year, completing a rise to the Top Division in the shortest time possible.
They slowly rose from a 10th place finish in 1996 to 9th and then a pair of 7ths before winning a silver medal in 2000. A drop back to 7th in 2001 was followed by the highlight of Slovakian hockey history, as they captured the World Championship in 2002.
Since that time however, the program has been in a steady, slow decline. They followed their championship with a respectable bronze medal in 2003 and then dropped to 4th, 5th and then 8th place. 2007 saw a rise to 6th, but then the dismal drop to the relegation round and a 13th place finish in 2008 and a 10th place in 2009, avoiding relegation thanks only to a narrow 4-3 win over Hungary.
Slovakia enters the 2010 Olympics with 13 NHLers on it's roster, highlighted by Chara of Boston, Marian Gaborik of the Rangers, Marian Hossa of Chicago and the surprise inclusion of 38-year-old veterans Palffy and Stumpel. Eight of the other Slovaks are currently playing in the Russian KHL, most of which have previous NHL experience like Branko Radivojevic, Marcel Hossa, Stumpel and Richard Zednik. Of the two remaining members of the roster, Palffy is playing in Slovakia and Lubos Bartecko is competing with SC Bern in Switzerland.
The key for Slovakia will be the play of their goaltenders, Jaroslav Halak and Peter Budaj, neither of which has established himself as a clear number one goaltender in the NHL this season, with Halak splitting time in Montreal and Budaj in a backup role with Colorado.
With the format for this year's Olympics calling for the top four teams after the Preliminary Round to receive byes into the quarterfinals, the key for Slovakia will be defeating Latvia by as many goals as possible on February 20th and coming away with at least a point against the Czech Republic in their opening matchup on February 17th to gain a favorable pairing in the Secondary Round knockout games on February 23rd.
Today's featured jersey is a Nike 2004 Slovakia National Team Marian Gaborik jersey as worn during the 2004 World Championships. Slovakia won Group B that year with wins over Ukraine and Finland, plus a tie with the United States. They proceeded to also win Group F in the next round by downing Russia and playing Sweden to a 0-0 draw.
They advanced with a 3-1 win over Switzerland before losing to Canada in the Semi-finals 2-1 and finished fourth after a 1-0 defeat in the bronze medal game in a rematch with the USA.
Gaborik has four goals and two assists for six points in nine games during the tournament.
He had previously played in the World Under-18 championships and the World Juniors (U20) twice each and then the World Championships in 2001.
He subsequently competed for Slovakia in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and the World Championships in both 2005 and 2007 as well as making his Olympic debut in 2006. Despite some impressive personal performances (11 points in six games in 2007), he is still looking for his first medal at the senior level.
Here is a look at the jerseys that Slovakia will be wearing in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. It's a typical modern jersey with underarm flashes and gimmicky stripes that kick up on the ends on both the arms and waist. It's crested with the traditional Slovakia emblem, but will become dated in short order as time passes.
Our video selection today takes a look back at the excitement of Slovakia winning their first World Championship back in 2002.