Despite taking an early lead against Finland, Team Slovakia’s opening game at Beijing 2022 didn’t go to plan. Craig Ramsay’s side, buoyed by a Juraj Slafkovsky brace, were torn to pieces by their Finnish rivals, who played slick, exciting hockey on route to a dominant 6-2 win in Group C.
Though not entirely outmatched by Jukka Jalonen’s team, Slovakia was vulnerable on the transition and struggled to contain Finland in the offensive zone. The Finns, who face Latvia next, were effective on the power play and penalty kill, moving the puck quickly to keep Simon Nemec and Co. at arms-length.
Team Sweden, fresh off a 3-2 win over the Latvians, is Slovakia’s next opponent, they face off tomorrow. Before then, it’s time to contemplate The Hockey Writers’ three takeaways from the Slovaks’ defeat to Finland.
Olympic Debutant Juraj Slafkovsky Stars for Slovakia
Although it was a disappointing result for his team, Slafkovsky put on a show for NHL scouts watching from afar. The 17-year-old winger was Slovakia’s most dangerous forward throughout the opening game of their tournament, using his 6-foot-4 frame, high hockey IQ, and composed stickhandling ability to make his mark against the Finns.
Slafkovsky opened his account in Beijing five minutes into the opening period, flipping the puck up high to beat Harri Sateri from close-range. The goal, the first of his senior international career, was the product of well-organized Slovakian pressure in the offensive zone, forcing a turnover behind the Finnish net.
The TPS forward’s second goal of the afternoon came midway through the middle frame. Slafkovsky received possession behind the goal line, pulled the puck onto his forehand, wheeled towards the slot, and fired a delicious wrist-shot over Sateri’s glove hand. For Slovakia, it was the play of the game.
With Slafkovsky, it’s important to avoid hyperbole. His display (in just 12:57 time on ice) versus Finland was exceptional, he was comfortably the best performer on Team Slovakia, but there’s only so much you can glean from one game. He’s an elite prospect – but let’s see what he brings to the table versus Sweden and Latvia.
Simon Nemec Struggles in Slovakia’s Olympic Opener
Again, there’s no need to draw grand conclusions. Nemec is a fantastic prospect, on course to be selected in the top five of this year’s draft, and was playing on a defense that couldn’t keep up with Finland’s slick passing in the offensive zone.
However, Nemec’s performance versus the Finns was poor – by his lofty standards, at least. The 17-year-old, exhausted from a long-shit on the power player, coughed up possession in a dangerous spot in the second period and was lucky the play didn’t end with the puck in the back of the Slovakian net.
There was a nervousness to the HK Nitra defenseman’s play on his Olympic debut, which – frankly – is understandable given the weight of expectation placed on his shoulders. If Nemec returns to his best against Sweden, his opening game struggles will be quickly forgotten. He’ll be fine.
Penalty Box Trips Prove Costly for Slovakia
Finland’s second goal of the game, scored by hattrick hero Harri Pesonen, came on the power play. Mark Dano, the Slovakian player who sat in the sin bin as the Finns took the lead, was penalized for boarding. It was a silly penalty to concede, one that swept Team Slovakia’s momentum off the ice and placed their rivals in the driver’s seat. Giving up needless penalties became a theme for Ramsay’s side.
With Tomas Jurco handed a two-minute minor for tripping, Finland created more dangerous chances on the power play in the second period. If not for netminder Branislav Konrad and his woodwork, Slovakia’s deficit would’ve been larger than two heading into the final frame.
Finland’s sixth goal also came on the man-advantage, with Miro Aaltonen putting the final nail in Slovakia’s coffin with just over five minutes left to play in Beijing.
Although Team Slovakia didn’t concede an abundance of penalties, they did give them up at important moments in the game against a team famously effective at five-on-four. If they are going to make an impact at the Beijing Games, Slovakia must play with more discipline in their remaining group stage fixtures.
Up Next for Team Slovakia at Beijing 2022
After Sweden’s wobble against Team Latvia, there are reasons to be optimistic about Slovakia’s prospects ahead of their second tournament game. If Ramsay’s side can find a way to create more offense – besides Slafkovsky – they will cause their Group C rivals issues.
However, after game one, Slovakia’s biggest concern is on the back end. Although Konrad didn’t make any major errors against Finland, he still conceded six goals from 30 shots – which isn’t ideal. Likewise, Martin Marincin’s NHL experience didn’t shine through, he was comprehensively outplayed by Jalonen’s forward group.
Nemec, too, could hold the key against Sweden. If he rediscovers his composure in possession, Team Slovakia’s influence over the flow of play will increase, allowing them to upset the Swedes.
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.