Lightning over the Tatras. Slovakia's under-21 hockey team took bronze at the World Junior Hockey Championships.
Nineteen year-old goalie Ján Lašák led his team of underdogs to the top of group A with one goal wins over the Czech Republic, Finland and the USA and a 0-0 tie with Canada, before ultimately falling 3-2 to Russia, the eventual champion, in the semifinals.
In the bronze medal game against Sweden, Lašák finally got some offensive support, as center Istvan Nagy, 19, scored a hat trick to lead Slovakia to a 5-4 win.
"It's not only [our country's] first medal, but our best previous ranking was a sixth place, so this has a lot of meaning for everybody involved in ice hockey in Slovakia," coach Ján Filc said after the tournament.
Thanks to Lašák, Slovakia's 90.21% save percentage was second only to Russia's 90.29%. Time and again, his stellar play between the pipes saved his punchless teammates from defeat. Not one Slovak finished among the tourney's top 20 scorers. This is a reversal of form for a nation that has sent no standout goaltenders, but some of the top marksmen - including last year's league leading scorer, Peter Bondra - to North America's National Hockey League (NHL).
Every year, the Junior Championships serve as a showcase for the world's teenage hockey stars to impress NHL scouts seeking players to draft the following spring. This year, Nagy, a St. Louis Blues draftee, was touted as Slovakia's greatest prospect, one who could follow in the footsteps of Slovak sharpshooters Stan Mikita, Peter Šťastný and Bondra to the NHL. He did not disappoint, leading Slovakia with four goals and three assists, but a couple of his younger teammates also drew rave reviews as well. Marián Gáborík, 16, and Martin Cibák, 18, chipped in with three goals and two goals plus three assists, respectively.
There was no question, however, that from the moment he started matching heralded Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo save for save in game two, Lašák was the star of a Slovak team that played loose and was praised for its desire.
Following his defending champions' loss in the first round, Finnish coach Jukka Rautakorpi said the Slovaks played with "big hearts." And after Nagy, Lašák and company dyed their hair blond and downed the favored Swedes, Swedish coach Mats Hallin said the Slovaks "wanted the bronze medal more than we did."
11. Jan 1999 at 0:00 | Rick Zednik