Wed Dec 25 10:11am EST
GROUP A: SLOVAKIA
2013 finish: 8th place
2013 round-robin: 0-1-1-2, 10 GF/19 GA
The Slovakian side will be an experienced one with seven players returning from their disappointing eighth place finish last year in Ufa, Russia. Their offence will be lead by Columbus Blue Jackets’ first-round pick Marko Dano who will be participating in his third consecutive world junior championship.
Dano was the team’s top scorer in the tournament last year with four goals and five assists in six games and definitely caught the eyes of NHL scouts. The native of Trencin, Slovakia, has been playing in the KHL for the past two seasons for HC Slovan Bratislava. In addition, he played on the men’s national team at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship last summer, so his leadership and experience will play a key role for the Slovaks. Dano isn’t particularly big, but at 5-foot-11 and 185-pounds, he’s tank on the puck.
"I play against men in the KHL," said Dano at the NHL draft in June. "So I'm tough.
"I'm not very (tall), but I have good puck skill and passing."
Offensively head coach Ernest Bokros has three NHL drafted players at his disposal: Dano, Peter Cehlarik (Boston) and Martin Reway (Montreal). Bokros knows his players well as 21 of the 28 players he invited to camp played for his HK Orange 20 team – an under-20 team in the top Slovakian league.
Reway will be a player many who follow the CHL will be familiar with as he plays for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Gatineau Olympiques. He’s one of the top scorers for the ‘Piques with 14 goals and 27 assists in only 25 games. Team Canada assistant coach, Benoit Groulx, knows better than most what Reway is capable of, since he coaches him in Gatineau.
“Martin is a phenomenal player,” said Groulx. “He’s got a ton of skill. He’s a guy that’s very good five feet around him – he’s good stick-handling, he’s a good passer, a good shot and good vision. He competes hard. He’s going to be a top player for Slovakia.”
Defensively, Patrik Luza, Richard Buri and Tomas Rusina are returning to anchor the blueline. Luza, who like Dano plays in the KHL for Slovan Bratislava, will be looked upon to help the defence corps.
One of Slovakia’s promising young stars to watch on the blueline is Erik Cernak, who at 16, is already 6-foot-3 and 203-pounds. Cernak is quite mobile for his size and has represented Slovakia at the under-17 and under-18 tournaments.
Last year in Ufa, Russia, Richard Sabol was Slovakia’s third-string goaltender and he should be given an opportunity to start this year in Malmo. The 19-year-old spent the first half of the season with HK Orange 20 and recorded a 3.51 goals against average and .908 save percentage in 17 league games.
The eighth-place finish in Ufa was no doubt disappointing for the Slovakians who showed promise early in the tournament holding a two goal lead against Canada and rallying to tie Russia – both games ended up losses, but the experience will no doubt prove vital for those returning to the tournament in Malmo.
Being in Group A with Canada, Team USA, Czech Republic and Germany should help Slovakia. They might not have as much firepower upfront as they did last year, but if they can shore up their defensive game, they have the potential to surprise a few teams.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Forward Marko Dano (HC Slovan Bratislava, KHL) As mentioned above, Dano is expected to be the catalyst for this team with his skill and experience. A shifty, creative centre, Dano has excellent acceleration and isn’t afraid to get physical despite his smaller stature. He has a strong two-way game, so don’t be surprised to see the 19-year-old log minutes on both the power play and the penalty kill. His father, Jozef Dano, is a former professional hockey player in Europe and represented Slovakia in the world championships.
Forward Peter Cehlarik (Lulea, SHL) The 6-foot-2, 196-pound left-winger’s star has been on the rise and culminated with being selected in third round (90th overall) by the Boston Bruins. Still only 18, Cehlarik has already played professionally in the Swedish Hockey League. A smart player with good hands - but his skating isn’t his strong suit.
Defenceman Patrik Luza (HC Slovan Bratislava, KHL) Most Canadian world junior fans might remember Luza as the defenceman crushed by Anthony Camara during the tournament last year. Luza, now 19, left the ice on a stretcher, suffered a cut and a concussion and only played in two games for the Slovaks in the round robin. This will be his opportunity to make good on an opportunity cut short in 2013.
Forward Martin Reway (Gatineau Olympiques, QMJHL) Dynamic is probably the best way to describe the fourth round pick (116th overall) of the Montreal Canadiens in 2013. He’s small – listed at 5-foot-10, 174-pounds – but he’s speedy and is an offensive force. Good hands and a good passer, Reway has had 14 multi-point games for Gatineau this season.
MUST WIN GAME: GERMANY (Dec. 27, 9 a.m. EST)
With the new changes to the tournament format, Slovakia has to finish amongst the top four teams in Group A to avoiding the relegation round. Their best chance to do that will be to beat Germany. Last year they were able to sneak out a 3-2 win over the Germans. In terms of pure rivalry, their game against the Czech Republic on Dec. 31, is one people will want to watch. The last time those two teams met was in the relegation round in 2011 and the Czechs beat the Slovaks 5-2.