Slovakia's second home
Slovakia's second home
Reinforced roster looks to banish 2014's blues
Ostrava is just 55 km from the Slovak border – close enough for the Slovak national team to feel right at home here. That makes this year’s championship especially attractive to the team’s biggest stars, with the likes of Marion Gaborik suiting up in their country’s colours for the first time since 2011 in Bratislava. That added strength and experience, particularly on offence, gives Slovak fans good grounds to hope for something closer to 2012’s silver medal run rather than last season’s group stage failure.
However, defence could be Slovakia’s Achilles heel. The return of Dominik Granak, back in the city where he made is World Championship debut, is a welcome boost but there are question marks over the goaltending and on the blue line. For a country determined to turn the ‘big six’ into a ‘big seven’, this is the greatest concern.
Jan Laco of Barys Astana in the KHL and Orebro’s Julius Hudacek are likely to fight it out for goaltending duties in this tournament. Laco got rave write-ups for his performance against Russia at the Olympics, shutting out the hosts in regulation before succumbing in a shoot-out, and started seven out of eight games in last year’s Worlds. Hudacek, whose brother Libor is also in the squad, will be hoping for game time this year after being a makeweight in the 2014 roster. Branislav Konrad of Dukla Trencin completes the trio.
Reliable defenceman Dominik Granak is back in action after almost a year plagued by injuries, and that should add some stability to Slovakia’s blue line. Granak, a double Gagarin Cup winner with Dynamo Moscow, missed out on an Olympic call after breaking his ankle and then overcame a chronic back problem to win a place in this year’s roster. Andrej Meszaros, currently with Buffalo, brings NHL experience to the defence. Rookie Adam Janosik is looking forward to playing in his first senior World Championship, especially since back in 2004, aged just 12, he visited Ostrava to watch Slovakia in that edition of the World Championship.Continue reading
Hopes are high that Detroit Red Wings duo Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco might be able to join team Slovakia after their NHL play-off commitments ended in defeat against Tampa Bay on Wednesday. The duo faces a fitness test on Friday and, all being well, could fly to Europe over the weekend according to GM Otto Sykora. Tatar is one of the rising stars of Slovak hockey, and after posting 56 points in the regular season he is being mentioned in some quarters as a long-term replacement Detroit’s aging stars. Jurco, meanwhile, suited up 63 times in the regular season and got his first taste of NHL play-off hockey as the 22-year-old right wing matures into a solid performer.
If they come, they won’t be the only NHLers on Vladimir Vujtek’s roster. Marion Gaborik, a Stanley Cup winner with the Kings last year and a veteran of more than 900 NHL games, is poised to make his first appearance for his country since Slovakia hosted the Worlds in 2011. Tomas Kopecky of the Florida Panthers and Richard Panik of the Maple Leafs bring experience, while young Marko Dano could be one to watch: the 20-year-old plundered 21 points in 35 games for the Blue Jackets in his rookie NHL campaign.
Vladimir Vujtek has announced that this season will be his last with team Slovakia after four years in the job. The 67-year-old is a familiar figure in Ostrava, where he spent the bulk of his playing career with Vitkovice before spending 13 seasons behind the bench in four different spells. With many fans expected to make the short journey across the border Vujtek will be looking to turn this Czech city into a Slovak enclave... and hopefully lead his team to a repeat of the medal-winning performance he enjoyed in his debut World Championship with Slovakia in Helsinki in 2012.
That silver medal in Helsinki raised hopes that a new era of strong Slovak hockey was dawning, but subsequent seasons have been disappointing. An 11th-placed finish in the Sochi Olympics and a failure to get through the group phase in Minsk last year failed to live up to expectations, while Slovakia’s flagship club team, Slovan Bratislava, had a disappointing season in the KHL. However, there are grounds for optimism this time around: in Ostrava Slovakia will be a de facto home team, given the traveling support that will come with them, and the roster features some potent NHL firepower to help it get into at least the quarters.
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