Monday, 2 January 2012

Slovaks rage at referees. Finland scores eight to advance

It was always going to be a tough task for the Slovak team to conquer the powerhouse Finnish offence, but their cause certainly wasn't helped by a rash of poor refereeing calls which by the third period had all but killed off the game. Matúš Chovan, the hatrick hero against the Swiss in the final game of the round robin was thrown out of the game in the third period for 5+game boarding call. However, replays showed that Miro Aaltonen turned after Chovan had committed to the hit, and the resulting injury caused to Aaltonen was his own doing. This call put the nail in the Slovaks coffin, as they had come inches to bringing the game back to a one goal deficit minutes before hand. The Finnish scored twice on the major powerplay, with one of the goals coming on a 5 on 3 as Peter Trška sat in the box after picking up a minor penalty.

Matúš Chovan celebrates scoring Slovakia's first goal
The Slovaks gave a spirited performance, certainly not afraid of the highly touted Finnish top line, featuring the Granlund brothers (Mikael and Markus) and Teemu Pulkkinen, but in the early going it was Buffalo prospect Joel Armia who set the tone, as just four minutes in, his cross crease pass was cruelly deflected off the stick of Matej Bene and past goaltender Juraj Šimboch. The Slovaks ran into penalty trouble soon after, with young Marko Daňo and Bene ending up in the box, giving the Finnish 58 seconds of 5 on 3 to work with, but the top PK pairing of the two Oilers prospects, Martin Gernát and Martin Marinčin standing firm, the former taking a point shot off of the top of his helmet, but not missing a shift. The penalty kill seemed to swing the momentum in the Slovaks direction, as not soon after they tied the game, with Chovan getting his fourth goal of the tournament, capitalising on a Jani Hakanpää, and Richárd Mráz's fine work to get the puck to the net. The Tatranski Vlci forward was one of the best Slovak players on the ice in Calgary. Things were looking peachy from the Slovaks, and they had the run of play, but only eight seconds after Mráz's goal, the Finns went up the other end and scored, as Šimboch dropped a simple glove save, and it was Roope Hämäläinen who was the first to the loose puck. Once again the Slovaks marched to the box in the latter stages of the first, but Slovakia's penalty kill continued to sparkle, with Mráz beating Sami Aittokallio all ends up with a cracking slapshot, only to watch his effort rattle the pipes and stay out of the net. However, the Slovaks would go into the first intermission on an equal footing, as with only 29 seconds remaining in the first frame, whilst on the powerplay, Marek Tvrdon, the Detroit Red Wings draft pick scored his third of the tournament, capitalising on great work by Miloš Bubela on the boards, and his one timer wired past Aittokallio.

Richard Mráz rides high after scoring
It was Slovakia's inability to stay out of the box in the second which scuppered their chances, as they simply could not get any momentum going. However, the referees did not aid Slovakia's cause, and in the lead up to Mikael Granlund's fabulous strike on the powerplay, a high stick on Daňo went uncalled to the youngsters fury, and just a minute later, Slovak captain Tomáš Matoušek was hauled down in the neutral zone off the puck, only for the play to go the other way, and Markus Granlund to fire the puck past Šimboch. It was not  Šimboch's best night, as the fifth goal went straight through his five hole, which saw the introduction of Dominik Riečický to the night's proceedings, but he only kept his clean sheet for a matter of seconds, as 1995 born Aleksander Barkov scored with a lovely deke past the HK Orange 20 goalie. At 6-2 it was looking bleak for the Slovaks, but with six minutes left in the frame they got a goal back, as the impressive Mráz finished off a great team move, comprising of a  Marinčin point shot, a Chovan deflection and a Mráz shot, leaving Aittokallio stranded on the other side of the net.

Finland now face Sweden in the semi final
The Slovaks knew they had to get an early goal in the third period if they wanted to get back into the game, and that's what they got, as five minutes into the period Aittokallio was feeling generous. In what was great interplay between Daňo and Martin Ďaloga, the latter ended up with the puck near the left face off dot, and with no other options around him, fired a weak wristshot on goal, which the Finnish goalie simply didn't react to, and it ended up in the net. The Slovaks went oh so close to making it a one goal game, as Michal Toman was stonewalled by Aittokallio, showing his true form. However, with only eight and a half minutes to go, Chovan went to hit Aaltonen at the half boards, only for the Finn to turn his back and end up with his head against the boards. Chovan was given a 5+game penalty, and the Slovak bench fumed. Frustration started to boil over as there were numerous bouts of shoving, and Tvrdon received a ten minute misconduct penalty for mouthing off at the officials. Donskoi and Pulkkinen netted for Finland on their powerplays. However, the Slovaks would finish their campaign on a high note, and "Tarzan Boy" would fill the Saddledome once more, as with just 28 seconds left, after more great work by Mráz, Marko Daňo, the 17 year old from Dukla Trenčín scored after a beautiful move, selling Aittokallio with his forehand deke before finishing on the back hand.

The score looked rather bleak at 8-5, but the Slovaks can be proud of their challenge, and while they may rue what might have been if the calls had gone for them instead of against them, they have nothing to be ashamed of. The standout players for Slovakia in the tournament have been Richard Mráz, the winger from Lev Poprad's farm team, top scorer and Slovakia's best prospect in a number of years, Tomáš Jurčo, who finished with seven points from five games, and the performances of  Marko Daňo in his entrance to the world stage. The Slovaks will have some holes to fill next year, as Marinčin, Jurčo, Matoušek and Adam Jánošík become ineligible, but with a number of great prospects in the pipeline, things are starting to look up for Slovakia's junior program

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