3 Takeaways as Team Slovakia Win Bronze, Slafkovsky is Crowned MVP

It just had to be him. 17-year-old sensation Juraj Slafkovsky netted a brace for Slovakia as they defeated Sweden 4-0 to win bronze at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, finally ending the nation’s wait for an Olympic medal in ice hockey.

The first period passed without incident. Slovakia outshot the Swedes 14-8, killing an early penalty conceded by netminder Patrik Rybar. Heading into the first intermission, the Slovaks had the upper hand.

Slafkovsky opened the scoring for Craig Ramsay’s team three minutes into the second period, with Samuel Takac doubling their lead on the power play shortly after. However, Slovakia was forced to wait for their next goals, thwarted time and time again by Swedish netminder Lars Johansson.

In the closing exchanges, the floodgates opened. With Johansson pulled to Sweden’s bench, Slafkovsky and Pavol Regenda applied the finishing touches to their win, scoring empty-netters just 20 seconds apart.

Moments later, the final buzzer sounded, sparking rapturous scenes as Slafkovsky and Rybar were mobbed by their teammates in celebration. Ramsay, famously inexpressive behind the bench, looked skywards and smiled. Even to Slovakia’s understated head coach, this was a moment worth savoring.

“I told them we can beat anybody, and in the end, our third period today was the best period I’ve ever seen in my 50 years in hockey,” Ramsay said in Beijing.

“The talk on the bench was spectacular. The talk on the ice was spectacular. That’s when you know you have a team. To see a group come together and be so committed at the end. They played great, and it just needed a goal to do even more.

“To be part of it and to see it happen and feel it happen – our kids were willing to do whatever it takes. I’m looking forward to a walk outside. I’m so thrilled for the country, that they can have this sense of pride. This is so vital to build something and keep moving forward.”

Juraj Slafkovsky: ‘It’s an amazing feeling’

Slafkovsky arrived in Beijing with low expectations, he was selected with the fourth line and future experience in mind. Instead, he blazed onto the world stage, scored seven goals in seven games, and was crowned as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

“It’s just an amazing feeling,” Slafkovsky said,  bronze medal in hand. “After all we went through, bouncing back from the first two losses and a tough [4-1] loss to Sweden in the group stage, and then we score four goals on them. This has been an amazing few weeks since the start of camp, and I’m so happy to be part of this.”

Juraj Slafkovsky Team Slovakia
Juraj Slafkovsky, Team Slovakia (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s more, Slafkovsky ends Beijing 2022 as the all-time leading Winter Olympic goal scorer amongst under-18s. To help contextualize the scale of the Slovak’s achievement, Ed Olczyk, his nearest rival, notched seven points (two goals, five assists) for Team USA at Sarajevo 1984. It’s been a while.

Slafkovsky was already forecast to be an early pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. His performances for Team Slovakia have only boosted the value of his stock.

Slovakia’s Defense Stood Strong

Team Slovakia opened the tournament poorly, losing heavily to Finland before capitulating in the first period against Sweden. They suffered at the hands of Finland’s slick passing in the offensive zone, caught puck watching at times – especially on the power play.

However, Slovakia’s blueline rebounded against Latvia and stayed strong through the rest of the tournament. Two Slovak defenders deserve special praise: Peter Ceresnak and Martin Marincin. Both played tough minutes against difficult opponents and helped Ramsay’s team stay in contention, most notably against the USA.

Related: 2022 Men’s Olympic Hockey Team Slovakia Final Roster

Behind them, Rybar was utterly dominant and voted onto the All-Star Team as a result. He leaves Beijing 2022 as the leading netminder in save percentage (.967), goals-against average (0.86), and shutouts (2).

The 28-year-old has a .904 SV% in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) this season. If he sustains his performances from the Olympics against SKA Saint Petersburg in the playoffs, NHL interest could surface.

Miroslav Satan and Craig Ramsay Made History Together

“I am glad that such an expert, who worked in the NHL as a player and for many years, as a coach in various roles, will come to us and help us set or direct hockey with some new professional things to a new era,” Miroslav Šatan, now president of the Slovak Ice Hockey Association, said following Ramsay’s appointment in 2017.

In his time behind Slovakia’s bench, Ramsay has implemented a more aggressive style of play, placed faith in the nation’s next crop of talent, and revitalized the popularity of the national team.

“He’s great, he’s a really positive person. He wants us to do the right things and he believes in us. And that’s something huge,” Peter Cehlarik said of Ramsay’s impact. “The work they’ve done with other coaches over the last few years is incredible and now it’s gone according to plan. I believe that we can build on that, move on and have further successes.”

Michal Kristof, who has featured at every tournament since Ramsay’s arrival, agreed with Cehlarik’s assessment.

“He changed our mentality that if we play together and as a team, we can really beat anyone. Swedes, Finns, USA, anyone. I think that was the biggest turning point,” the Kometa Brno forward said. “We started to believe in ourselves and that we could really do it. We gradually moved on, last year we made the quarterfinals after a long time and today we have medals on our necks.”

Ramsay was forced to make several big decisions in Beijing. He got all of them correct. The 70-year-old was right to turn to Rybar after his other netminders struggled. He was right to bench Simon Nemec, who underwhelmed in the group phase. He was right to hand Slafkovsky difficult assignments.

“I left home when I was sixteen and now I’m 102,” Ramsay joked, “I put this success at the top of my career.”

Who could blame him?

What Next for Hockey Slovakia?

With Satan and Ramsay at the helm, the future is bright for Hockey Slovakia. Slafkovsky and Nemec are on course to be selected early in this year’s draft and the national team is set up to prosper at the World Championship in May.

Further down the line, there are more reasons to be cheerful about Slovakia’s chances of success on the world stage. Dalibor Dvorsky, a 6-foot-1 centreman, leads the nation’s prospect class for the 2023 NHL Entry Draft. Although he’s still only 16, he’s impressed in Sweden’s second tier for AIK and could be well suited to life in the NHL in the future.

2022 Olympics Beijing 2022 Slovakia
2022 Olympics Beijing 2022 Slovakia (The Hockey Writers)

Alex Ciernik is another Slovak prospect to keep an eye on. Although he’ll be one of the oldest players in next year’s draft, his high-energy style of play will attract interest across the NHL.

The bottom line is this. Team Slovakia made history in Beijing, silencing their critics at every turn. Their bronze-medal performance was a remarkable outcome, one they thoroughly deserved.

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