SCOTIABANK PLACE – Slovakia's national anthem is “Lightning Over the Tatras,” and that's appropriate, because in Friday's first quarter-final, it shocked the entire hockey world.
With a 5-3 win over the United States, Slovakia advanced to a thoroughly unexpected semi-final meeting with Sweden on January 3. The Americans, featuring no fewer than eight NHL first-round picks, will participate in the fifth-place game the next day against the Russia-Czech Republic loser.
It was the biggest upset of the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship so far.
Slovakian goalie Jaroslav Janus, who has not been drafted by an NHL club, was simply outstanding, as the Americans outshot Slovakia 49-19. The 19-year-old Erie Otters netminder from Presov was deservedly named his team's Player of the Game.
The Slovaks hadn't previously made the semi-finals since 1999, when they earned their only World Junior medal (bronze) as an independent nation. And this year, they were one goal away from the relegation round when they beat Finland in a shootout to conclude Group B play. This victory was monumental for the Central European nation's beleaguered junior program.
"After the shootout against Finland, I felt good and felt I would play a strong game today," said Janus. "This is one of the biggest moments ever for our junior team, and it's a great feeling."
Tomas Tatar paced the Slovak attack with two goals, and Adam Bezak, Josef Molnar, and Richard Panik also scored for Slovakia. Ian Cole, Jonathon Blum, and James vanRiemsdyk tallied for the Americans.
"We came to the arena today knowing we were going to win," said Molnar. "We knew they would underestimate us."
In the first minute, Janus stopped Colin Wilson on a breakaway, where the American forward was hooked. Jordan Schroeder was chosen to take the ensuing penalty shot, but his deke was foiled as well.
"It was a game of bounces," said Schroeder afterwards. "We're all bummed right now. We had higher expectations."
The underdogs energized the pro-Slovakian crowd of 18,042 with just their third shot on goal, as Bezak came down right wing and used defenceman Cade Fairchild as a screen to beat McCollum on the glove for a 1-0 lead at 11:05.
It didn't take long for the U.S. to tie it up. At 12:01, Cole pinched in from the point on the power play and finished off a beautiful three-way passing play with Wilson and Schroeder. With his assist, Schroeder became the career leader in assists among American players with 15, surpassing Doug Weight's record of 14. (Weight's mark was established in one tournament, 1991).
The Slovaks didn't wilt, however. They came right back to make it 2-1 at 13:41 after a terrible turnover deep in the U.S. end. Tatar grabbed the loose puck behind the American defence and lofted a backhander over McCollum's glove. Clearly, this was to be a fight.
With 2:07 left in the first, the Slovaks went up 3-1 after Cole fired the puck off the referee and Molnar corralled the loose puck, bobbling a shot past an out-of-position McCollum on the stick side.
"The third goal was the most important because then we were sure we were going to win," said Molnar.
Despite being outshot 15-8 in the first 20 minutes, Slovakia headed off to the dressing room as energized as lightning bolts. Who would have believed this could be happening?
Janus continued to amaze as the Americans maintained pressure in the scoreless second. Slovakia didn't record its first shot in the second until the 12:27 mark. But their goalie was there with frantic blocker saves and lunging pad stops whenever they needed him, particularly during a Martin Stajnoch minor for cross-checking.
The best Janus save of the period, though, came with 3:05 left as he lunged across the crease for a glove save on Tyler Johnson on what looked like a sure goal. The Americans looked increasingly disorganized and lethargic as time wore on, despite holding a 31-10 edge in shots through 40 minutes.
The U.S. finally cut the gap to 3-2 at 5:31 of the third on the power play when captain Jonathon Blum collected a rebound and flung it into the open net with Slovaks sprawling everywhere.
But the Slovaks had an answer from one of their most promising young guns. Richard Panik beat Cole wide on right wing, and the puck bounced in off an American defender with 8:22 left. An enormous roar went up after the goal was video-reviewed and ruled good.
The tempo slowed as the Slovaks iced the puck repeatedly in the final minutes. Tatar added an empty-netter with 2:14 remaining to clinch the victory. vanRiemsdyk scored a spectacular solo dash goal a minute later to make it 5-3, but it was too little, too late. Tempers flared as the Americans pressed around the cage of Janus.
"They buried their chances," said vanRiemsdyk disconsolately. "We had a lot of confidence even when it was 4-2. We still thought we could win."
When the final buzzer sounded, the Slovaks leapt off their bench as if they'd just won the tournament, joining for a bouncy group hug.
"We've got nothing to lose tomorrow against Sweden," said Molnar. "They beat us 3-1 in the group game, but we have a hot goalie."
This game ended America's World Junior streak of dominance over Slovakia. The United States came in riding a streak of seven wins and one tie dating back to December 28, 1999. For the first time in seven years, the Americans will finish lower than fourth place at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
USA Hockey can only be described as thunderstruck.
(Nathan also is a writer for Maineiacs Post to Post and the Maine Hockey Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com)