Goalie Lašák advances Slovakia to gold medal hockey bout

Slovak national team goaltender Ján Lašák stoned Sweden's top hockey stars in an overtime shootout May 9 that sent his side on to compete for the gold medal at the World Hockey Championships in Sweden.

Lašák's team won 3-2 after a nail-biting 60-minute duel followed by a 10 minute overtime. Captain Miroslay Šatan had tied the score 2-2 with two minutes remaining in the third period, but neither side was able to settle the match in extra time despite numerous chances.

In the shootout that followed, Lašák stopped all four shots he faced while Slovakia, after missing its first two chances, potted top-corner goals on strikes by Žigmund Pálffy and Richard Lintner.

Slovakia moved on to play Russia in the May 11 gold medal match following the victory, the second time in recent memory the country has achieved such a hockey success after going down 5-3 to the Czech Republic in the last game in the 2000 competition.

Pubs and restaurants around the country swelled with hockey fans, and after the semi-final triumph burst onto the streets to celebrate.

Slovakia, with 11 players drawn from National Hockey League teams that had either not qualified for the NHL playoffs or had been eliminated, had one of the strongest squads at the annual international derby.

NHL stars such as Šatan, Pálffy and Peter Bondra had been key to Slovakia's wins in the tournament leading up to the Swedish game.

Bondra, for example, scored two goals in Slovakia's 3-2 triumph over Canada in a quarterfinal match May 7.

National team coach Ján Filc, who oversaw Slovakia's preliminary round elimination debacle at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, said he was awed by the hockey talent that surrounded him.

"I've never been around so many quality hockey players on one bench," he said after the Canada victory. "It's the highlight of my career so far."

Filc said that after a series of half-hearted performances in the early phases of this year's tournament, including Slovakia's only loss, 3-1 to Finland, he had gathered his troops for a strategy session, particularly to address Slovakia's traditional weakness on defence.

"We said three things," he explained. "First, help [goalie] Lašák and he'll help us back. Second - if someone tears your head off, pick it up and bring it back to the bench and the doctor will sew it back on for you. And third, get all five men back to face the attack, because it will come."

While Slovakia has often been criticised for its weakness in goal, Lašák this season has started netminding for the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes, and was named star of the game in his first appearance, a 3-2 loss to St. Louis.

On May 9 he was also star of the game, but this time putting Slovakia into gold-medal competition in a championship LA Kings forward Pálffy called "as tense hockey as I have ever experienced in the NHL playoffs".

As the nation readies for the gold medal match with Russia, which defeated Finland earlier in the day by the same score, 3-2 in shootout, Bratislava's SNP square is being fitted with a huge television screen to show the game to an expected 10,000 fans.

"I don't even know who scored and I don't care," said Milan Križan, 37, of Bratislava following Slovakia's victory over Sweden, which he had been watching in the capital's jammed Umelka pub.

"We did it. We're there."

Compiled by Tom Nicholson from press reports.
The Slovak Spectator cannot vouch for the accuracy of the information presented in its Flash News postings.

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