Slovakia had a bit of a rollercoaster ride at the 2013 WJC in Ufa. After a near miss, 3-2 loss to host Russia in the opener, the Slovaks managed to drive Canada crazy with 2-0 and 3-1 leads heading towards the midway mark of the game before ultimately succumbing, 6-3. The team then had more trouble with Germany than it probably should have, tying the game late and winning 2-1 in overtime. This was followed by a 9-3 trouncing at the hands of the USA. The team then won a hard-fought victory over Latvia 5-3 to avoid relegation before getting blown away 11-4 by Finland in a game that had no bearing on the standings for either team.
What this year’s squad can certainly offer is a theoretical first line with lots of skill. Leading the way will be Columbus Blue Jackets 2013 first rounder Marko Dano, who led last year’s squad in scoring with four goals and nine points. The talented, responsible two-way forward has been talked about for years and continues to deliver internationally. Dano is currently in his second full KHL season with Slovan Bratislava and, like the team itself, has had some problems this season. After seven points and a +4 rating in 37 games last season, he now has four points and a -11 in 35 games this season. Still, the shifty competitor is the unequivocal leader of a team that will need him to at least repeat last winter’s numbers.
He’ll be helped by 6’2”, 196-pound forward Peter Cehlarik and 5’10”, 175-pound winger Martin Reway. Cehlarik has spent several seasons in Sweden and his game has improved in leaps and bounds. Tall, lanky, and tricky, he has excellent hands, good overall hockey sense, and a keen ability to protect the puck along the boards. Despite two assists in 18 games for Lulea, one of the SHL’s top-ranked clubs, he has suited up for 17 games with Asploven of the Allsvenskan, where he’s collected five goals and 13 points to go along with a +3 rating. The humble and serious Reway is in the midst of his second QMJHL season and has more than picked up where he left off last season, when he had 50 points in 47 games. This season, the highly-skilled Gatineau Olympiques' forward has 14 goals, 41 points, 28 penalty minutes, and a +11 in just 25 games. Like Dano, both Cehlarik (Boston Bruins third rounder) and Reway (Montreal Canadians fourth rounder) were selected in last summer’s draft.
These three will go a long way in deciding the Slovakians’ fate, but they’ll not be able to do things all alone. They’ll be joined by a number of players who play predominantly for the HK Orange 20 junior project, which collects the bulk of the players who come into question for the WJC and has them play together against teams in Slovakia’s top pro league. There, they gain the often brutal experience that comes with playing against pro men in a controlled atmosphere, where they have neither the option of being relegated nor making the playoffs. The results to date have been inconsistent and unconvincing, at best. Still, the program is believed to be of great benefit in light of the country’s financial problems and the number of players who have left the country in young years to better develop elsewhere, of which Cehlarik and Reway are no exception.
Other Slovak players of special note
Richard Sabol, G – A goalie with the HK Orange 20 program, Sabol is a 5’10”, 185-pound netminder who has shown a strong inclination to learn things on the fly. His stats this season include a 3.61 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage in 14 games, which shouldn’t necessarily be seen as all that bad in light of the team in front of him and the competition he’s faced. More telling are perhaps his 0.79 goals-against and .974 save percentage in four U20 contests this winter. It is felt that he has the odds-on advantage of starting in net ahead of teammate Sam Baros and Slovan prospect Denis Godla (Sabol did, in fact, get the nod in Slovakia's opening 9-2 drubbing of Germany).
Martin Keckes, D – The large-bodied 6’4”, 205-pound Slovak defender (many continue to wonder what they’re putting in the water in Slovakia) has spent some time abroad in recent years, primarily in Sweden and with a stint in the NAHL for the Wenatchee Wild. This has allowed him to gain gobs of experience from different systems, which he is now bringing to the Czech Karlovy Vary MHL project. There he has three goals, 11 points, 14 penalty minutes, and a +10 rating in 23 games. An all-around player, the odds are that he’ll be receiving top four minutes for Slovakia throughout this tournament.
David Griger, F – A 5’10”, 175-pound teammate of Keckes in Karlovy Vary, the winger already has a full season of Slovakian Elitliga play behind him for Poprad. Now skating in the MHL, he’s scoring at almost a point-per-game clip and has done just that internationally this fall with nine points in eight U20 games. The right-shooting forward can be used at all forward positions and will likely be assuming a top-two line role. His ability to produce in that role will go a long way in deciding what Slovakia can achieve in this tournament.
Stanislav Horansky, F – The 5’11”, 186-pound center has some exceptional playmaking skills. He finished last season tearing things apart for Swiss team Biel’s U20 program. He’s also had 18 games of Slovak Elitliga experience. Not a two-way beast by any stretch of the imagination, he could make an impact in this tournament if and when Slovakia finds itself on the power-play. He is currently a member of the HK Orange 20 program.
Who the scouts will be watching
Erik Cernak, D – If you haven’t heard of this kid yet, then you’ve been missing out big time. Another big-bodied Slovak defenseman, Cernak is 6’4”, 203 pounds, and has the type of skating and in-game instincts that make scouts drool. He can play in all three zones and has no qualms about eliminating opponents physically and then curbing the transition game. His breakout passes are right out of the textbook. He lets shots go from the point at an almost alarming rate and is a right-handed shot, something every team loves to have on its blueline. He is quite possibly the best player on this team not drafted by an NHL club. What makes this most special: he was born on May 28th, 1997. Just let that sink in a bit.
The low down
Slovakia will feature a majority of players who have been playing together against men for most of the season to date as part of the HK Orange 20 program – 16 to be exact. That will mean that there’s routine, chemistry, and familiarity with a common system and with each other. With the three top forwards mentioned above, the team has just enough star power to punish any team that dares to sleep through a period or two, much less a whole game. The team also features 15 players who are at least six feet tall and that will allow the team to eat up more space and get in the way of more shooting and passing lanes. These advantages aside, the likelihood is that this Slovak team will have its hands full just avoiding the relegation round. Its opening game against Germany on the 27th will be its most important game of the preliminary round (an easy win, as it has turned out). The Slovaks will surely also keep things close when it comes to facing their brother nation, the Czech Republic, on New Year’s Eve.
Should the team unexpectedly find itself in the two team relegation round, it is hard to believe that a player of Marko Dano’s caliber would allow his nation to be relegated at this juncture.
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