As his teammates watched on from the bench, tormented by a whirlwind of emotions, Patrik Rybar stood tall in his net, knowing he was just one more save away from making history. He made it, sending Team Slovakia to the Olympic semi-finals at the expense of the United States of America.
His stop, a sprawling pad save on Andy Miele’s decisive shootout attempt, will go down in Slovak sporting folklore. On an afternoon of high drama in China, he was Slovakia’s hero, aided by his fearless colleagues and stoic, unmoving head coach.
Team Slovakia’s 3-2 win over the USA started, like most of their games in Beijing, with a Juraj Slafkovsky goal. The 17-year-old, still the top scorer at the Olympics, put the puck in the net after 11 minutes, assisted by Peter Ceresnak and Pavol Regenda. Quickly, the Americans responded.
Nick Abruzzese scored the USA’s leveler in the final minute of period one with help from Matty Beniers and Steven Kamper. The Americans outshot their opponents 10-8 in the first. They didn’t in the second. Slovakia came out fighting in the middle frame, generating 13 shots to the USA’s six. However, Sam Hentges broke the ice, sending the Americans into the second intermission with a 2-1 lead.
A masterclass in penalty killing followed. Team Slovakia made five trips to the box between Hentges’ goal and final buzzer, smothering them with gritty defending and imperious netminding to set up a last-minute salvo.
With Rybar perched on the Slovak bench, Libor Hudacek found Michal Cajkovsky in space in the USA’s zone. The 29-year-old quickly dished the puck to Marek Hrivik, who looked up, flexed his wrist, and lit the lamp to send the game to overtime.
The extra frame was a nailbiter. Slafkovsky almost won it all for Slovakia, forcing Strauss Mann into an athletic pad stop midway through the period. At the other end, Rybar saved the game for the Slovaks – far too many times for comfort. The 28-year-old’s best snatch, an audacious poke check, came with four seconds remaining. It was a close call, but it was enough to send the game to a shootout.
Six players failed to score before Peter Cehlarik beat Mann, making Miele’s attempt the all-or-nothing or nothing shot. Rybar thwarted him, earning Slovakia the win and a place in the semi-finals. They will face Finland the USA will fly home.
As his players celebrated wildly on the ice, Craig Ramsay almost smiled behind Team Slovakia’s bench, unmoved by the biggest win of his coaching career. His work at these Games isn’t finished yet.
Juraj Slafkosky: Slovakia’s Young Star
Slovakia’s trip to the semi-finals isn’t unprecedented, they finished fourth at Vancouver in 2010 and have enjoyed success at the World Championships in the past. However, the Sloaks’ quarter-final victory was their first win over the USA since 2006 and saw them overcome heavy favorites while relying on a teenager.
Slafkovsky deserves a ton of praise. The 2022 NHL Entry Draft prospect, a winger for TPS Turku, was completely unperturbed by the significance of the occasion in overtime, playing 2:55 – the third most on Slovakia’s roster. The kid plays big, skates fast, and has tidy hands. He’s also got nerves of steel. His draft stock has risen exponentially since landing in Beijing.
“Wow, they flew at us,” Slafkovsky told reporters in China. “The hockey gods decided to give [the game-tying goal] to us 40 seconds before the end, and it fell there. It’s like a dream. I’m glad we have a chance to win a medal.”
On his memories of Slovakia’s historic run in Vancouver, he added: “I was watching, but I was six years old, so I had to go to kindergarten.” This time around, it’s Slafkovsky who is inspiring the next generation of Slovakian talent.
Patrik Rybar: Slovakia’s Unexpected Hero
Hrivik, the scorer of Slovakia’s game-tying goal, used his media availability to honor Rybar and Cehlarik.
“We showed unreal character,” the 30-year-old said, “Pato stood on his head in goal, [it was] incredible what he showed. Cehlo decided it, but it was a great performance from the whole team. Unbelievable.”
Ramsay was also keen to pump up his netminder: “It was our best match of the tournament. We played as a team, and the defense was excellent. Even if we made a mistake, Rybar was brilliant.”
Since taking over the crease against Sweden, Rybar has played tremendously. He made 33 saves on 35 shots versus the USA, solidifying his place amongst the tournament’s leading goaltenders. The Finns won’t be looking forward to facing off against the Skalica native in the semis.
How Far Can Team Slovakia Go?
On Jan. 15, before Ramsay named his squad for the Olympics, I wrote:
Team Slovakia could, if they play their cards right, walk away from Beijing 2022 with a medal in men’s ice hockey. With NHL players out of the picture, the Central European nation’s assortment of talent could shock their rivals.
I haven’t changed my mind over the last month. Although they have overcome long odds to qualify for the final four, Slovakia’s trip to the semi-finals isn’t as a Cinderella Run. The Slovaks, having eliminated the USA, are credible medal candidates.
“I’m proud of the boys,” Cehlarik explained moments after scoring the game-winning goal, “but the work isn’t over yet.” Team Slovakia means business; Finland cannot afford to take them lightly.
Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.