Tuesday, February 4, 2014

2014 Olympic Hockey Preview - Slovakia

The Slovakia National Hockey Team is currently ranked 8th in the IIHF World Rankings, a ranking that can be seen as deceptively low given Slovakia's recent performances in the World Championships. Slovakia placed 10th or worse four times in a row from 2008 and 2011, but then followed that up with a silver medal in 2011!

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At times Slovakia is forced to ice rosters devoid of many NHL stars who are otherwise occupied by participating in the NHL playoffs or pass 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, they can rise to be a force. You overlook Slovakia as a medal contender at your own peril.

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Peter Bondra in 2002

Based on their status as one of the top nine ranked countries, Slovakia was automatically entered in the 2014 Olympic tournament, allowing them avoid the qualification process for teams outside the top nine.

The Slovaks have participated in the Olympics in ice hockey five times since 1994 after the division of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with finishes of 6th in 1994, 5th in 2010 and 4th the last time out in Vancouver, results more in line with what they are capable of with all hands on deck, unlike their sometimes poor showings at the World Championships while fielding rosters of less than full strength. 

One such example of when Slovakia was forced to field a less than full roster came at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City 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 PalffyPavol DemitraMarian HossaMiroslav 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.

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 they did not belong at the bottom level by immediately winning Pool C in 1994 and followed up by winning Pool B the very next year, completing a rise to the Top Division in the shortest time possible.

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Peter Stastny led the Slovaks to the top division in short order

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.

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Miroslav Satan hoists the World Championship trophy in 2002

Since that time however, the program began 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. It was more of the same with a 12th in 2010 and a disappointing 10th in 2011 when they were the host nation, but then a stellar silver medal in 2012 served notice of what they are capable of given the right circumstances. 

Slovakia enters the 2014 Olympics with 14 NHLers on it's roster, highlighted by Chara of Boston, Marian Hossa and Michal Handzus of Chicago, Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar of Detroit, and Tomas Kopecky of  Florida, as well as the possibility of Marian Gaborik of the Columbus if healthy in time. The remainder of the Slovak roster are all currently playing in the Russian KHL, some of whom have previous NHL experience like Marcel Hossa.

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Chara will carry the flag for Slovakia in the opening ceremonies

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 St. Louis and Budaj  backing up in Montreal.

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 Slovenia by as many goals as possible on February 15th and coming away with at least a point against the United States in their opening matchup on February 13th to gain a favorable pairing in the Secondary Round knockout games on February 23rd.

Today's featured jersey is a 2002 Slovakia National Team Peter Bondra jersey as worn when the Slovaks reached the pinnacle by winning the 2002 World Championships after less than 10 years of play following the division of Czechoslovakia.

Bondra was a two-time 50 goal scorer in the NHL who also achieved the distinction of becoming a 500 goal scorer as well in a career mainly spent with the Washington Capitals. He also played for Slovakia at the 1998 and 2006 Olympics, the 1996 World Cup  and the World Championships in 2002 and 2003, winning a gold followed by a bronze medal.

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Here is a look at the jerseys that Slovakia will be wearing in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The horizontal pinstripes on the white jerseys are actually the lyrics to the Slovakia national anthem, making for one of the better of the new crop of jerseys for 2014.

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Our video selection today takes a look back at the excitement of Slovakia winning their first World Championship back in 2002.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know how many people took the time to watch the youtube clip but it was well worth it. Great post spyboy!


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