Zdeno Chara (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
The Slovaks refuse to accept an underdog label. They head to Sochi with the will to compete for a medal, but do they have the talent to challenge the high-end countries?
Anytime Zdeno Chara is playing for your team, there will be no crutches. Unless, of course, the hockey world’s largest living land mammal steps into an opposing forward and things go badly.
But when it comes to making excuses, there will not be any from the Slovaks or their star defenseman. The Slovaks are an underdog with a dearth of NHL talent to be sure, but that will not have them happy with earning the participation badge. That much was apparent in 2010 when the Slovaks finished fourth, giving Canada everything it could handle in the semifinal.
“We can’t afford to be thinking, ‘Hey, we’ll just go there, play a tournament and it’s OK if we just play mediocre,’ " Chara said.
If the Slovaks were looking for crutches, there are plenty available. A broken collarbone will keep Marian Gaborik from competing and the death of Pavol Demitra in the plane crash that wiped out the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl roster in 2011 robbed the Slovaks of their best player from the 2010 tournament.
What remains is a small group of seasoned veterans, combined with some promising youngsters. In goal, Jaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues or Petr Budaj of the Montreal Canadiens will need to have the best two weeks of their lives if the Slovaks are to have any hope of competing for a medal. Veterans Michal Handzus and Marian Hossa are coming off winning the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks and will provide secondary leadership after Chara.
The Slovaks will need a minor miracle to get to the Final Four the way they did in 2010 in Vancouver. It happened once and in a short tournament, anything can happen again. “As long as we play hard and give everything we have, people back home are usually fine with whatever results we get,” Chara said.
THN PREDICTION: 8th
WHAT HAPPENED IN VANCOUVER 2010
The Slovaks finished third in their group after a loss to the Czechs and an OT win over Russia. In the qualification playoff game, they beat Norway, a team with no active NHL players compared to 13 for the Slovaks, by just a 4-3 margin. They went on to put four pucks past Henrik Lundqvist to beat Sweden in the quarterfinal, followed by a 3-2 loss to Canada in the semis and a 5-3 defeat to Finland in the bronze medal game.