Jaroslav Janus of Team Slovakia stops the puck on a penalty shot by Justin Schroeder of Team USA during the quarterfinals at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Ottawa. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
OTTAWA – Moments after playing the game of his life, Jaroslav Janus peered through the crowd to see Erie Otters GM Sherry Bassin approaching. The two embraced before Janus smiled and said, “So, do you like me now?”
It was impossible not to like what Janus, who plays for Bassin’s Otters when he’s not with the Slovak junior team, had just done. The 19-year-old had almost singlehandedly crushed USA’s hopes in the World Junior Championship with a spectacular performance in the Slovaks’ 5-3 win over the Americans in the quarterfinal. In all, Janus stopped 44 of 47 shots and was all-worldly in the second period when the Americans outshot the Slovaks by a 16-2 margin.
When asked whether he would be less popular in Erie after beating the Americans, Janus seemed perplexed, until it was explained to him that Erie is an American city.
“Oh, so maybe they’re not going to like me,” Janus said. “I didn’t even think about that, but, oh my God, I can’t go back there.”
The fans in Erie will probably be in a forgiving mood if Janus plays for them the way he played for the Slovaks Friday. In picking up the victory, Janus turned away sure goals and breakaways, a penalty shot and a number of chances from players who will someday star in the NHL.
Nobody really saw this coming, otherwise Janus might have been drafted last summer by an NHL team.
“This was one of those things where your manager looks at you and says, ‘Why didn’t we take this guy?’ “ one scout said. “ ‘We took that donkey in the seventh round and this guy was available?’ ”
That’s the thing about playing on a stage as large as the WJC. Performances both good and bad are magnified because there’s so much at stake and the players are under so much pressure. Is Janus as good as he was in the U.S. game? Probably not, but there’s also something to be said for coming up with that kind of performance in such a big game that was supposed to be such a mismatch.
And as Bassin pointed out, even though Janus had just an .892 save percentage and a 4.40 goals-against average for a terrible Erie team last season, he was named most valuable player on the team.
“Our team loves to play in front of him,” Bassin said. “Even this year with some of his losses…we went into Sarnia and gave up 42 shots and lost 2-1. He has been inconsistent at times, but not as inconsistent as some people have suggested. We’re in third place this year and we have the No. 1 penalty killing unit in the league and we don’t score a lot and he has a lot to do with that penalty killing.”
Bassin said he tried to get Janus a free agent tryout with several NHL teams and “they told me I was dreaming.”
The Slovaks’ dream of winning this tournament is still alive thanks to Janus, but in order for it to continue, they’ll have to beat the heavily favored Swedes tomorrow with no rest. But even if they don’t, their performance at this WJC will be considered a triumph for a Slovak program that has fallen upon hard times in recent years.
One thing that likely helped the junior team is the fact it plays its games in the Slovak Elite League against men much older and more experienced than they are.
And the Slovaks beating the Swedes is not unprecedented. At the 1999 tournament in Winnipeg, Slovakia won the bronze medal game against a Swedish team that included the Sedin twins and future NHLers such as Christian Backman, Henrik Tallinder, Christian Berglund and Mathias Tjarnqvist.
“This is the biggest win for Slovakia,” Janus said. “To beat America at the world juniors, it’s unbelievable.”