Team Slovakia has the confidence of a side that could upset the United States in the quarter-finals at Beijing 2022. Craig Ramsay’s men, though definite underdogs to reach the final four, have a spring in their step after shutting out Germany in the playoffs and will now dream of matching their historic run to the bronze medal game at Vancouver 2010.
“The mentality is there to keep us in the game, not to make unnecessary mistakes, to play responsibly in defence,” blueliner Martin Gernat told reporters in China. “We did it in the first two periods, in the third we started to overthink, but it was 3-0…. The game against the United States will be one of the toughest. We’ve seen some [of their] games, they’re going to play fast hockey. They’ve got young players; we’ve got to prepare for that.”
Unfortunately for Gernat, he won’t have long to get ready. Slovakia’s meeting with the Americans is the first quarter-final on the schedule in Beijing, with David Quinn’s team two days fresher than their European challengers.
Regardless, Slovakia will be confident that they can hurt Team USA after their stunning playoff win.
“I think we gave a very good performance,” assistant coach Andrej Podkonicky said. “We didn’t give Germany any chances. We played well in the middle zone, attacking and skating well. There were a few rebounds, but we were held by a great team performance and the excellent Patrik Rybar in goal.”
The scorer of Slovakia’s second goal, Peter Cehlarik, added: “Pat was catching excellently. In the second half of the first period, we were able to take the lead, which was crucial. We played well in the defensive zone, the first goal started us off and we always play better if we don’t have to tighten up.”
Since opening their campaign with back-to-back defeats vs. Finland and Sweden, the Slovaks have found their stride. There’s a lot to discuss following their win over Germany, so here’s a look at some of the biggest talking points surrounding Team Slovakia in Beijing.
Patrik Rybar Stars (Again) for Team Slovakia
Rybar started the Olympics third on Slovakia’s goaltending depth chart behind Branislav Konrad and Matej Tomek. He isn’t a backup option anymore.
Konrad started versus Finland, conceding six goals from 30 shots. Ramsay, unimpressed by the 34-year-old’s performance, responded by starting Tomek in net against Sweden. That decision proved to be a mistake; Tomek conceded three goals on 12 shots in the opening period and was swiftly put back on the bench.
Through 40 minutes of play against Tre Kronor, Rybar steadied the ship by keeping a clean sheet on 21 shots. He was rewarded for his performance with a rare start against Latvia, saving 18 of the 20 strikes he faced.
Against Germany, the 28-year-old was perfect — saving 21 shots, several of them on higher-danger chances. As a result, he leads the tournament in save percentage (.965) and goals-against average (0.76). He’s also tied for shutouts (1) with Commesso Drew. If Rybar continues to stand on his head, Slovakia could upset the Americans in the quarters.
Team Slovakia’s Veterans Finally Deliver
Juraj Slafkovsky was Slovakia’s star in the group phase, scoring four vital goals in three impressive appearances. Although the 17-year-old’s emergence gave his side a boost, it was inevitable that he would need the support of his veteran teammates in the playoffs. Thankfully for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft prospect, they stepped up against Germany.
“From the beginning of the game we had great movement,” 28-year-old defenceman Gernat said. “We tried to play fast hockey, get to them in the zone, into chances. We scored the first goal, which was crucial. When we put the second and third, we tried to keep it going. The match was tough. It was about one game, who loses, goes home.”
Slovakia’s point-scorers against Germany included Peter Ceresnak (29), Marek Hrivik (30), and Samuel Takac (30). They lifted the burden from Slafkovsky’s young shoulders and used their experience to see the Germans in an all-or-nothing scenario. Ramsay will be hoping for more of the same vs. Team USA.
Will Team Slovakia Upset the Americans?
Slovakia beat Russia (in the group stage), Norway and Sweden (in the knockouts) en route to the bronze medal game in Vancouver. They must beat Team USA to get another medal shot in Beijing. Ramsay’s side are heavy underdogs, that fact is unmistakable. However, Winter Olympics without the NHL have set the scene for upsets before — and a Slovak win against the Americans would be quite the scalp.
The key talking point for Slovakia heading into the quarter-finals is whether Simon Nemec will play. The 17-year-old didn’t feature in his nation’s shutout win over Germany but will be hoping to get back on the ice in Beijing. As it stands, he is behind fellow defensive prospect Samuel Knazko on the Slovak depth chart.
All eyes, then, are on head coach Ramsay. In the biggest moment of his head coaching career since leading the Philadelphia Flyers to the Western Conference Final in 2000, will he turn to Slovakia’s next defensive star? Time will tell.
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.