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NEWS

Surprising Slovakia next hurdle for Canada

Friday, 02.26.2010 / 11:26 AM / News
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Surprising Slovakia next hurdle for Canada
SLOVAKIA (3-1-0-1) vs. CANADA (3-1-0-1)

What to watch -- Canada was expected to be in this game; Slovakia was not.

The Slovaks entered this tournament as underdogs in their pool, which also included Russia and the Czech Republic. Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa and Miroslav Satan came to Vancouver with nagging injuries. Yet here are the Slovaks, in the medal round for the first time and just one win away from the gold medal game. They've already penned an incredible story are these Olympics. If they beat Canada, it would be like a bad fiction writer went far too deep into dreamland.

On the other hand, the Slovaks represent just another hurdle for the Canadian machine, which steamrolled Russia in what supposed to be the tournament's dream matchup. Canada has been getting better with each game -- and after a 7-3 shellacking of the Russians it found an identity, too.

It's the Canadian identity of working hard and working smart. Mike Babcock severely outcoached Russia coach Slava Bykov and the Canadian players took away all of the time and space the Russian players love to operate with. They'll have to do it again.

"I would say it's more of a North American brand now, because I think us and the United States play a very similar brand of hockey," Canada Executive Director Steve Yzerman told NHL.com. "I think we're showing, Canada and the U.S., that the players have skill. They can skate, pass the puck and shoot the puck. They are creative and they can get it in there to play a strong game. I think it's the North American game and we showed that it's a good skill level, it's not just dump it in, chase it and outwork them."

Team Reports:

Slovakia -- The Slovaks were so happy with their win over Sweden on Wednesday night that they decided to burn that celebration oil well into Thursday. Like the Canadians, they did not hold a practice. Unlike the Canadians, they were not ready to move on to the next game when morning dawned.

"We are still living what we accomplished last night," Slovak GM Peter Bondra said.

Slovakia has a lot to celebrate, but the Slovaks now have a lot to deal with, too. The Canadians pose an even bigger threat than the Swedes because of their overall size, skill and speed. Sweden also never got untracked offensively in the tournament, which is another reason it bowed out early.

What the Slovaks have going for them is the best special teams in the tournament. They are No. 1 on the penalty kill (18-for-19) and No. 1 on the power play (7-for-19). They scored a pair of power-play goals and were perfect on all three penalty kills against Sweden. They also killed off all five penalties when they played the Russians.

Canada -- It will be interesting to see how Babcock plays this one. Canada will get the advantage of having the last change as a result of a better goal differential in the preliminary round (7-5), and Babcock is hot on matchups.

He formed a five-man unit of Jonathan Toews, Mike Richards, Rick Nash, Shea Weber and Scott Niedermayer to shut down Russia's top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin. Slovakia smartly skates Hossa and Gaborik on separate lines, and both are right wings.

If Babcock keeps his same lines, he could use the Toews' line and Ryan Getzlaf's line to matchup with Slovakia's top two units. Richards and Brenden Morrow would be the left wings, but Babcock might have Nash and Richards swap sides, too, if he wants a bigger body guarding either Gaborik or Hossa.

The technicalities aside, Canada smells gold now and you have to think the Canadians won't let an upstart team like Slovakia stand in their way. It's not as if the Canadians need any more motivation, but they'll know what's at stake if Team USA beats Finland earlier in the day.

"I don't think I'm going to talk about that. It's still a long ways away," Roberto Luongo said of the potential for a U.S.-Canada gold medal game. "Like (Wednesday), a lot of people were talking about us playing Sweden, but we said you never know what can happen. There's no point in jumping ahead of ourselves."

Total NHL players on rosters
-- Switzerland 13; Canada 23

Puck drop -- "I think the whole experience has been as good as everybody has talked about and it's really something to play in front of a crowd with that energy," Jarome Iginla told NHL.com. "To see Canadians get into it and be apart of it, on the streets and everywhere, it's great. It's been an awesome experience and as a group we have been enjoying it. As the tournament has gone on we have gotten more comfortable in that area and we're not looking at it as pressure. We are going to go out there as a team, be aggressive, physical and assertive and the rest will take care of itself."

NHL.com predicts -- Slovakia puts a scare into Canada, but only early in the game. The Canadians get rolling in the second period and put the game away early in the third. A nation starts looking ahead to what could be on Sunday in the gold medal game.

-- Dan Rosen

SCHEDULE

HOME
AWAY
PROMOTIONAL

STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 MTL 62 41 16 5 171 135 87
2 NYI 64 41 21 2 205 179 84
3 NYR 61 38 17 6 192 152 82
4 TBL 64 38 20 6 210 171 82
5 DET 61 35 15 11 180 159 81
6 PIT 62 36 17 9 181 155 81
7 WSH 64 34 20 10 188 159 78
8 BOS 62 31 22 9 165 161 71
9 FLA 63 28 22 13 154 178 69
10 PHI 63 27 25 11 168 183 65
11 OTT 60 27 23 10 171 163 64
12 NJD 63 26 27 10 141 164 62
13 CBJ 62 26 32 4 160 196 56
14 CAR 61 24 30 7 142 162 55
15 TOR 63 25 33 5 170 193 55
16 BUF 63 19 39 5 123 212 43

STATS

2014-2015 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
M. Cammalleri 51 23 10 4 33
A. Henrique 56 12 20 -1 32
P. Elias 53 10 16 -13 26
S. Gomez 39 5 18 -9 23
M. Zidlicky 63 4 19 -7 23
T. Zajac 55 10 10 -4 20
S. Bernier 48 10 8 1 18
M. Ryder 44 6 12 -2 18
A. Larsson 45 2 16 3 18
M. Havlat 38 5 9 -12 14
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
C. Schneider 23 23 6 .927 2.19
K. Kinkaid 3 4 3 .915 2.59