Team Slovakia left the ice perplexed at how the first period of their Group C clash with Sweden had unraveled. The Slovaks, comfortably the better side in the opening ten minutes of play, trailed 3-0 heading into the first intermission, and the score-line simply didn’t reflect the balance of play.
Lifted by Juraj Slafkovsky’s brace against Finland in their Winter Olympic opener, Craig Ramsay’s team was fearless in the opening exchanges against the Swedes. It was Magnus Hellberg, not Slovakia’s Matej Tomek, who was the busier of the two netminders.
However, sport at any level is cruel – and the Olympic Games are a particularly unforgiving stage. Joakim Nordstrom put Sweden ahead after 11 minutes, with Tre Kronor doubling their advantage at five-on-three seven minutes later. Max Frieberg scored Sweden’s third with just five seconds left on the clock in the opening frame.
The Swedes’ goalscoring flurry, though devastating, did not capture the contest’s temperature. Team Slovakia outshot their European rivals, created dangerous chances, and generated turnovers in the Swedish end. They were, however, stunned by Sweden’s trickery in the offensive zone, caught puck-watching at times, and a little soft in front of Tomek’s net in the first period.
It wasn’t a disastrous performance from Ramsay’s men – but it did underscore their fragility in the defensive zone. In addition to Sweden’s trio of first-period goals, the lamp was lit twice in the final frame. With that in mind, my takeaways from Slovakia’s 4-1 loss to Sweden are as follows:
Missed Opportunities will Haunt Slovakia
Slovakia outshot Sweden 14-12 in the first period, 16-9 in the second, and 12-9 in the third. They created chances to score at five-on-five, five-on-four, and five-on-three. Although Ramsay will rue his team’s inability to capitalise on their powerplay opportunities, Team Slovakia’s lack of cutting edge will be most concerning to him.
There’s an interesting comparison to be drawn between Slovakia and the Toronto Maple Leafs. This season, the Leafs stumbled out of the blocks in the NHL, with head coach Seldon Keefe bemoaning the cleanness of his team’s scoring chances. In other words, the Leafs’ offensive slump wasn’t because they were toothless, it was because they made life relatively easy on opposition goalies.
The same applies to Slovakia. Slafkovsky aside, they aren’t banging and crashing around the net enough. Hellberg performed tremendously for Sweden – but he was rarely screened like Tomek was in the opening frame.
Slovakia also missed numerous high danger chances. During a brief spell of four-on-four at the end of the second period, Tomas Jurco grabbed the puck in the neutral zone and caught Team Sweden scrambling. The former Edmonton Oiler broke into the offensive zone, forcing a fine save from Hellberg – but it was a chance he had to convert if his side were going to mount a comeback.
Opportunities also came Slovakia’s way on the penalty kill, but Hellberg, sent sprawling to his left by Michal Kristof, shut the door. Team Slovakia is so close to being very dangerous. Will they bolster their scoring touch against Latvia?
Simon Nemec Improved vs. Sweden
Granted, Simon Nemec’s performance wasn’t perfect, he was on the ice for one of Sweden’s goals. However, the 17-year-old took a big step forward on Friday, making better use of the puck in the offensive zone.
Against Finland, the HK Nitra defenceman coughed up possession a couple of times in dangerous transitional moments. He was trying too hard to make the perfect pass when all he needed to do was to make sure his side kept possession. That wasn’t the case against Sweden. Nemec, who excelled as the quarterback on Slovakia’s powerplay, made smart plays throughout – including an excellent cross-ice pass in the closing stages of period two.
Nemec’s rebounding confidence will come in clutch for Ramsay as he prepares his side to face Latvia on Sunday. Slovakia, who know they must win to stand a chance of reaching the quarter-finals, should control a larger share of possession in their final group stage game – which will play into their star defensive prospect’s hands.
Patrik Rybar Seized Control of Slovakia’s Net
Branislav Konrad started for Slovakia against Finland, conceding six goals from 30 shots. Tomek started against Sweden, allowed three goals on 12 shots in the opening period, and was replaced by Patrik Rybar. Through 40 minutes of play against the Swedes, Rybar was composed, confident, and unbeatable. He made 21 saves on as many shots in relief, improving on his average start to the season in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Given the quality of the 28-year-old’s performance, the question becomes, “is the net his?” rather than “are Slovakia going to get a save?” Unlike Konrad and Tomek (neither of whom were at fault for Slovakia’s losses), Rybar offered the kind of performance that would’ve allowed Slovakia to steal a win on another day.
He should start versus Latvia.
Up Next for Team Slovakia at Beijing 2022
Ramsay’s team ran Sweden close on Friday regardless of how the score-line looked. In fact, Slafkovsky’s late strike, assisted by Nemec, speaks volumes about where this team is headed. The 17-year-olds combined in the offensive zone, with Slafkovsky controlling the bouncing puck, pivoting quickly, and firing it over Hellberg’s blocker.
Team Slovakia has the desire, physicality, and skill to put Latvia to the sword in their all-or-nothing meeting on Sunday. If they continue to perform as they did against Sweden and make it out of Group C, they will cause powerhouse nations serious problems in the knockout rounds.
Sunday’s clash will be a test of nerve and faith for Slovakia. But if Slafkovsky carries on playing beyond his years and Nemec takes another step forwards, it is a test Ramsay’s team will pass with flying colors. The Slovaks are 0-2-0 to open to the Beijing Games, but it isn’t all doom and gloom. There is hope for them.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat 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.