Samuel Bucek has a smile that can light up a room. His grin never shined more brightly than when he scored the game-winning goal for Slovakia to defeat the United States. Shortly thereafter his teammates erupted onto the ice at the KeyBank Center. A celebration that toppled the net as Bucek and his compatriots piled into each other with gleeful rejoicing.
Slovakia was not supposed to win this game. How could they? Facing the reigning gold medalists who also happen to be the host nation. Team USA is a powerhouse, while the Slovakians seemed destined to be in the bottom three or four teams. The game was not exactly David versus Goliath, but it was not far from it.
The trouble was, you could feel right from the get-go that there was something different about this one. Call it a sixth sense, or maybe a sort of uneasy intuition. Those who watched in astonishment saw one of those rare moments in sports where a true underdog turned a champion onto its ear. And it all happened off of a wraparound by Bucek. Slovakia defeated the USA 3-2.
WATCH the phenomenal game-winner of Samuel Bucek and the other goals in Slovakia's 3-2 upset over defending #WorldJuniors champion USA. More from the game: https://t.co/iw9HJnuXTy pic.twitter.com/USFimMMn7l
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) December 29, 2017
THW had the opportunity to catch up with Bucek after the game and he was still grinning from ear to ear as we chatted with him.
Slovakia Never Let up From the First Stride
What Slovakia did from start to finish on this Dec. 28 evening game against the Americans was to never slacken. Never once did they stop moving their feet, hustling, or finishing their checks. Slovakia simply just did not back off. When THW asked Bucek about what the Slovakians’ mindset was heading into the game, he shared the following:
“Our mindset was that we knew that they had lots of skill players, so we were trying to play in our structure. Keep them in the distance, and definitely play good in the neutral zone. That is what we did. That was probably the main reason we won tonight because we didn’t give them too much space.”
One could draw a comparison between “The Little Engine That Could” and the Slovakians. They just kept coming and coming and did not cease, especially with their work in the neutral zone. Bucek personally exemplified this mindset. Not only did he have a point on all three Slovakian goals, but he is also tied for the team lead in shots on goal with three.
Riding Momentum After the First Goal
In retrospect, it is astonishing that the first period remained scoreless. The chatter during the first intermission was one of mild surprise that Slovakia was staying neck and neck with the USA. Little did anyone realize what the outcome would be.
You had to wonder what the naysayers were thinking when Filip Krivosik scored the game’s first goal and put Slovakia up 1-0 and established the momentum. Krivosik’s goal assisted by Bucek was the proverbial shot in the arm for Slovakia.
“It was something amazing, you know,” Bucek expressed. “That was the main reason why we won tonight – because we scored the first goal. It was so exciting for us when we scored that goal because it gave us energy. We knew that we had to keep going and playing the same way. We had just been doing that the whole game, and we are really happy for that. And we are also really excited with what we accomplished tonight.”
Though the USA came back and tied it at 1-1 on a Brady Tkachuk goal also in the second, Bucek would set up Krivosik again in the third at the 55:15 mark. The connection between the two was kismet most of the night. So much so that even when the USA’s Casey Mittelstadt tied it again on a goal where he leapt through the air, Slovakia’s momentum still could not be vanquished.
Bucek’s USHL and QMJHL Experience
Bucek is familiar with the North American game. The 6-foot-3, 192-pound winger is currently playing junior in the United States Hockey League (USHL) for the Chicago Steel. He has been playing in either the USHL or the QMJHL since the 2015-16 season. In 38 USHL games, he has scored 11 goals and 17 assists. During the 2016-17 season, he played in the QMJHL with the Shawinigan Cataractes where he scored 12 goals and 21 assists.
Asked if his experience in either North American league played a factor in his performance, Buzek acknowledged that indeed it did.
“For sure,” he said. “That style that they’re playing, I am playing in Chicago where I’m currently playing right now. I knew like I said, that they have lots of skilled players. We play almost the same game in the USHL, so the style is similar but not exactly the same. Here (the World Juniors) are the best players. In the USHL there are also good players, but they are not that good as the players on the national teams. But definitely, I knew what they were going to play, and how they were going to play. I also talked to the guys before the game and I told them, it’s going to be the skill game.”
Bucek’s anticipation of what the Americans were going to bring to the ice obviously paid major dividends. While Slovakia had natural difficulty in skating with the Americans due to the USA’s speed and talent, Slovakia never allowed that to get to them.
A Beauty of a Goal by Bucek
The other admirable aspect of Slovakia’s performance was their willingness and ability to finish their checks. They never hesitated to throw their weight around. It’s a confidence boost when an entire team is willing to play a physical game and throw body checks for 60 minutes.
But if are talking about the more artistic aspects of the game, Bucek’s game-winner was a thing of beauty. He skated in with a full head of speed and with the puck on to his stick. He dipsy-doodled in through the defense causing three USA players to drop to the ice in an effort to stop him. He then spun around the USA’s net on a wraparound, and after he could not initially slip the puck through on the move, he ended up firing the rebound right past Joseph Woll. From there, it was jubilation.
Congratulations to #WeAreSteel RW Samuel Buček on being named to the preliminary roster for Team Slovakia at the @iihf_wjc! The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship begins Dec. 26 in Buffalo.https://t.co/xbdVtZOe2T pic.twitter.com/9ckQbCo5eO
— x-Chicago Steel (@ChicagoSteel) December 13, 2017
“I don’t really know what to say,” Bucek grinned in genuine speechlessness that comes from a pinnacle moment. He went on to try and explain what took place after he scored the game-winner: “I just saw my teammates, and I came in there. They just hugged me – everybody. We were just celebrating together. That was something amazing what was going through my head. I can’t even explain it.”
No need to Samuel – we all saw it.
Bucek’s Family Back Home
Before wishing him the best of luck the rest of the way, THW asked Bucek if any of his family was able to make the trip to Buffalo. While the crowd at the KeyBank Center was largely USA supporters, there were a modest amount of Slovakia fans who waiting for their team in the commons area after the game. They waved their country’s flag, posed for photos, and cheered raucously for Team Slovakia. Were any of them Bucek’s family?
“No, they didn’t get the chance to come see me play at the World Js,” he smiled once more. “But, they will definitely come to Chicago to see me afterwards.”
Needless to say, if Bucek keeps up this kind of play, he may find himself permanently in an NHL city in the near future.