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NATIONAL TEAM HAS PROVEN IT BELONGS; CAN IT CRACK THE TOP SIX?

Slovakia needs to step it up at the World Championship

The Slovak national hockey team hopes to step up its level of play at this year's World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, April 26 to May 10. It is clear after only three years of independence and a long, hard fought road from the bottom of hockey that the Slovaks belong with the world's elite.
But there is another step: to break into the rock-solid top six of hockey countries: Russia, Finland, Sweden, Canada, USA, and the Czech Republic. The national team feels the weight of an entire country wrapped up in their fate. But arriving at the chance to play with those top countries has taken a lot of pressure off.


Scoring machine. While Slovak players like René Pucher are gifted at putting the puck into the net, they have had problems stopping it from going in.
Ján Súkup

The Slovak national hockey team hopes to step up its level of play at this year's World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, April 26 to May 10. It is clear after only three years of independence and a long, hard fought road from the bottom of hockey that the Slovaks belong with the world's elite.

But there is another step: to break into the rock-solid top six of hockey countries: Russia, Finland, Sweden, Canada, USA, and the Czech Republic. The national team feels the weight of an entire country wrapped up in their fate. But arriving at the chance to play with those top countries has taken a lot of pressure off.

After the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Czechs were kept with the Group A elite teams because a majority of the players on the Czechoslovak team were Czech. Slovakia meanwhile was relegated to Group C where they had to ascend to Group B and win to finally join the Czechs at the top. The young country swelled with pride when Slovakia completed this trip in 1995.

"The pressure is finally off," said left winger and captain Zdeno Cíger who plays for Slovan Bratislava after three years in the National Hockey League with Edmonton. "Last year we had our scary moments (referring to a 2-1 Slovak loss to Austria which forced Slovakia to beat Germany in order to stay in Group A). But I think we proved we can play with the best countries in the world."

Slovakia now finds itself in a sort of second tier of countries who end up watching the medal rounds. Norway, Germany, France, and Italy are on that fringe as well. Slovakia has a combined record of 18 wins, 3 losses, and 4 ties against those teams.


Trying to break free. Slovakia must elevate its game if it wants to rise into the medal rounds at this year's tourney.
Ján Súkup

Beating these countries won't be good enough this time, though. The format at this year's championship has changed so the top three teams in each pool go to a final round where each team plays each other once. At the end of the round robin, the top two teams battle in a best of three series for the gold medal, and the next two have a one-game playoff for the bronze. Six teams will ultimately have a shot. The top six look secure in this format unless Slovakia can figure out a way to beat one of them.

The Slovak squad's assistant coach, Dušan Ziska, said the key to beating the top teams is to simply play tough defense. "Our guys are known for their open ice, attacking style," he said. "We have to bring everyone back on defense and wait for our breaks. That is the style everyone has to play at this level, or speedy precise teams like Russia or Sweden will kill you."

Defense is not what Slovakia is known for. "Our Slovak league doesn't play good defense," said Cíger. "Everyone wants to score."

But the players on the national team seem to be getting the message. "We have to be disciplined," said defenseman Jerguš Bača. "No mental errors, or the puck will be in the wrong net." Cíger agreed, "If we open up, we will give up [goals]."

In Slovakia's pool in the preliminary round are: France, Germany, Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic will face Slovakia in game four on April 30.

The Slovaks are 0-5 against their former partners, and the pyschological barrier grows larger with each loss. "Yeah, there's probably a mental barrier there for us," said Cíger. "It's all wrapped up with politics, after the split and all. Each side wants to show up the other. But we can beat them."

They are going to have to beat one of them - the Czechs, Finns or the Russians. No easy task, but the role of underdog is one Slovakia is used to. "We have come a long way in a short time," said Dušan Pašek, the team's general manager. "There are some surprises left."

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