Chemistry, balance in doubt for Slovakia

Slovakia has fielded a "best of the best" lineup for the 2005 World Championship of hockey in Austria, but questions remain over the balance of stars and workers, as well as the ability of the team to score.

Slovakia has fielded a "best of the best" lineup for the 2005 World Championship of hockey in Austria, but questions remain over the balance of stars and workers, as well as the ability of the team to score.

For the first time ever at the annual World Championship, due to the National Hockey League lockout in North America, Slovakia and its rivals can draw on all their top NHL players rather than pray that teams like the Buffalo Sabres or Ottawa Senators lose their NHL playoff series early and allow their players to attend the Worlds for their respective countries.

That means that Slovak star forwards Ziggy Pálffy, Pavol Demitra, Miro Šatan, Marián Hossa, Michal Handzuš and Marián Gáborík were all rested and available for the tournament, along with defencemen Ľubo Višňovský and Zdeno Chára.

The problem is that this year's star Slovak line-up is not balanced with sluggers and role players, as it was in past years when Slovakia won the gold (2002), silver (2000) or bronze (2003) at the Worlds. National team regulars such as Ladislav Čierny and Jaroslav Obšut were cut from the 2005 team, while talented youngsters Andrej Meszároš and Richard Stehlík were also left off the roster. Instead, Hossa has gone with all-star lines like Pálffy - Stümpel - Šatan and Marián Hossa - Demitra - Nagy; significantly, in the April 27 game against Sweden, Slovakia's best threesome was the fourth line of checkers Vladimír Országh - Peter Pucher - Ľubomír Bartečko.

The forward lines in the 2005 line-up are also seriously imbalanced, with enormous strength on the right side and little on the left, all the more so after the tournament-ending injury to left wing Ladislav Nagy against Sweden.

On defence, too, Hossa has paired the offensively minded Chára and Richard Lintner together, a potentially dangerous decision given the firepower that other teams in the tournament will have. Moreover, Štrbák and Višňovský are still suffering from injuries - Višňovský a concussion that kept him out of game seven in the Slovak league playoffs - and did not play Sweden on Wednesday

In goal, Slovakia looks solid with perennial starter Ján Lašák having led his Pardubice club in the Czech Republic to the title, and backup Rastislav Staňa having had a good season with Soedertaelje in the Swedish Elitserien, which was considered the highest quality league during the 2004-2005 season with a respectable number of NHL players.

Ironically, while the marquee names among the forwards would seem to give Slovakia a high scoring potential, Slovakia has always seemed to struggle offensively in international play, and has never had one of the top powerplays (this was made painfully obvious against Sweden when Slovakia wasted a full two minutes with a two-man advantage without a shot on net). Instead, Slovakia scores a lot of shorthanded goals, suggesting a psychological barrier to performing well in situations when they have the advantage or are favoured to win.

Will Slovakia's star-studded line-up find the balance it needs to win the country a medal this year? Looking at the other rosters, Canada is doubtless the favourite for the gold. The Czechs had some injuries in training camp to star forwards like Patrik Eliáš and Milan Hejduk, but will be hungry for a medal having not won one since 2001. Sweden, which has won the silver two years in a row after losing the deciding match to Canada, is missing many of its top names, but that didn't prove a handicap against Slovakia. Finland and the USA look to be outsiders, while Russia has the individual talent to create a few surprises.

For Slovakia to do well, the team must hope to find the right chemistry as it plays through the tournament, while Hossa must find the courage to make some of his stars accept checking and niche roles. From what we've seen so far, there is significant room for improvement in both areas.

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