2013 WJC Review: Despite strong start, Slovakia performs pretty much as expected

By Chapin Landvogt

Peter Ceresnak - Peterborough Petes

Photo: Peterborough Petes defenseman and New York Rangers prospect Peter Ceresnak was the top defender for Slovakia at the 2013 World Juniors (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

On the first day of tournament play at the 2013 World Junior Championship, Slovakia fell just short of what might have been the tournament’s biggest sensation when it turned around a 2-0 Russian lead to force the game to overtime, where Russian defenseman Albert Yarullin scored on a power play goal to decide it, 3-2.

This nonetheless gave Slovakia a huge and unexpected point, as well as some obvious wind under their wings as they jumped out to a 3-1 lead against Team Canada after 30 minutes of play in their second game of the tourney. At this point, it was looking like Slovakia could be much more to reckon with than anyone had initially thought, but the Canadians’ crème-de-la-crème made its way to the surface, seeing the red, white and black come back with five unanswered goals. By this time, forward Marko Dano already had two goals and four points in tournament play.

The team then faced off against Germany in a pivotal preliminary game for both teams, one they looked very ready to win. They went on to do so, but not before they found themselves trailing Germany in the third period due to some great goaltending by German goalie, Marvin Cupper. A goal by Bruno Mraz in the 44th minute tied things up, allowing the game to go to OT, where Peter Ceresnak hammered home the winner in the 62nd minute on the power play.

As important as the two points were, this was not the result the Slovaks had been looking for after their solid upstart showings against the heavily favored Russians and Canadians. In their final preliminary round game against the eventual gold medal-winning USA squad, the Slovaks could do nothing but trail after having found themselves in a 1-1 tie on a breakaway goal by Matus Matis at the 4:19 point. Things went downhill from there and, despite the USA playing arguably its sloppiest game of the tournament, Slovakia found itself on the downside of a 9-3 result.

This pushed the Slovaks into the relegation round with only the two points they had earned against Germany and an initial matchup against Latvia, a similarly built team that knew it was fighting for its last breath. This pivotal game turned into yet another rollercoaster ride as Latvia turned a 3-1 Slovakian lead into a 3-3 game with only ten minutes to play. A huge goal by Andrej Bires in the 55th minute was followed by an empty-netter by Marko Dano to earn the Slovakians a ticket to Malmö next December in a 5-3 victory. This appeared to be all the team really wanted or could handle as it closed down the tournament in a relatively meaningless game against Finland by being subject to an 11-4 romp.

In summary, the Slovakian team ended up having just the tournament that was expected going in. A few shots at a sensation against several of the biggest hockey powers on the planet followed by some real whoopings at the hands of two others, making this team this tournament’s "Jeckyll and Hyde" entry. The national program knew that this was a somewhat weaker group going in and feels that the next wave, which will continue to include Marko Dano, will have more to offer in future tournaments. As such, this team did just what it needed in retaining class placement in the all-important victories over Germany and Latvia.

Top Forward – Marko Dano

Coming into the tournament, it was expected that Marko Dano would have to lead the way offensively and that’s exactly what he did. Clearly Slovakia’s top prospect for the 2013 NHL Draft, Dano paved the way with four goals and nine points in six games. Most impressive were his five points in the preliminary round, including his two goals against Canada that had given Slovakia a 3-1 lead after 30 minutes of play. A kid with an obvious nose for the net, he finished sixth in tournament scoring, but showed scouts he wouldn’t hesitate to go where it hurts and to make life difficult for opponents, even finishing second on the team with 12 penalty minutes, many of which came while displaying a good bit of moxy. The thought is that Marko could etch in as a top 60 pick in this summer’s NHL Draft.

Top Defenseman – Peter Ceresnak

The hulking 6’3”, 210-pound defenseman from the Peterborough Petes came into the tournament with a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, and he didn’t disappoint. Clearly the most important defenseman for Slovakia, especially in light of the lack of injured defenseman Martin Gernat, Ceresnak played a physical role and was regularly found on special teams as well as talking to the media. At the end of the day, he finished with three points and a +3 rating, being one of only two players with a plus rating for Slovakia. A 2011 sixth rounder for the New York Rangers, the team had to be very pleased with his performance, especially in light of the difficult season he’s been having in Peterborough where he currently sports a -18 rating.

Team MVP – Marko Dano

Not only the top-scorer on the team, Marko turned out to be its soul and contributed in just about every game. He collected a combined four points against Russia and Canada and assisted on the game-winning goals against Germany and Latvia. He played a lot of minutes and showed a lot of heart. There’s little doubt that he was the team’s most important player in just about all facets of the game, and doing so as one of its youngest participants.

Unsung Player – Andrej Bires

On a team with few things to write home about, the 5’8”, 170-pound Bires was the only forward on the team to finish with a plus rating. He also contributed four goals and six points including the team’s most important goal of the tournament in the win over Latvia. Asking anybody in the know, they’d say that Bires was the most unexpected surprise and a core player who any team would have liked to have had. He’s relatively unknown, as well, having taken a very unusual route to this point. He spent the 2011-12 season being a key contributor for not only Landshut’s German DNL championship club, but also having chipped in six goals and 13 points for its championship Men’s team, which plays in Germany’ second highest league.

2013 prospect to watch – Marko Dano

Once again, Dano’s name pops up whenever it comes to prospect and draft talk. He’s been a kid who’s been on the radar since he was 14 years old and he’s done nothing in this tournament to detract from his overall draft standing. He brings a lot of things NHL teams crave and weighs in at 5’11” and 185 pounds with some room to grow. He’s been playing Men’s hockey since he was 16 and is currently getting a regular shift for Slovan Bratislava of the KHL, where he has five points, 20 penalty minutes and a +2 rating in 27 games. Expect to hear his name called at the NHL Draft this summer before the third round begins. After this tournament, any little explosion to conclude his KHL season could even find him making his way into the first round of the draft.

This truly wasn’t a tournament in which NHL scouts were going to be able to find some as yet undiscovered gems among the group of young men Slovakia brought to the tournament, as this is actually one of the weaker classes Slovakia has had in recent years. Many of these young men had been involved with the U-18 team that was relegated not even two years beforehand in Dresden, Germany. However, there were a few 19-year-olds at this tournament who showed themselves to be very ready to take on all comers. Naturally, some might ask about what possibilities the undrafted right-shooting wingers Matus Matis and especially Tomas Mikus, who is currently taking a somewhat regular shift for Slovan Bratislava in the KHL, might have seeing as they built the first line together with Marko Dano.

Still, some watching might want to take a closer look at the development Bruno Mraz has made since having spent the 2011-12 season with the Brandon Wheat Kings. He is currently playing in Slovakia’s top Men’s league and just spent this tournament quietly putting up two goals and five points, taking a lot of shots and posting a modest -1 rating. His current contract is with Slovan Bratislava and it appears the club expects him to be a KHL player as soon as next season.