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Slovakia’s hockey team enjoying the moment

KEVIN WOODLEY
For The Associated Press
Slovakia's Tomas Kopecky (82) celebrates after scoring against Sweden goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) in the third period of a men's quarterfinal round ice hockey game at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010. The goal proved to be the winning score as Slovakia won the game 4-3. Also defending for Sweden is Nicklas Lidstrom (5). (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
AP | AP

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Slovakia took a day off Thursday to celebrate its biggest hockey win as a nation. On Friday, they get their biggest test.

Slovakia’s reward for upsetting defending Olympic champion Sweden on Wednesday was a quick break and a semifinal date with a Canadian squad that pounded Russia – both on the scoreboard and into the end boards – in a 7-3 quarterfinal romp.

But first the Slovaks wanted to enjoy their win, which left players screaming as if they’d just won the Stanley Cup.

“Oh my God,” Richard Zednik repeated before being told there were still two games left. “You know what? Right now I just want to enjoy this one.”

Slovakia is one win from its first medal since its Olympic hockey debut in 1994 and already assured of improving on its best fifth-place finish in 2006. Peter Bondra, Slovakia’s general manager and a 16-year NHL veteran, explained the day off Thursday by saying his team was “still living in what we accomplished.”

“We’re writing history,” Bondra told the Associated Press on Thursday.

Many expected the Slovaks to be history by now.

They’ve played the underdog card throughout these Olympics but were nonetheless a popular long-shot pick after a similar cast went 5-0 in 2006 Games in Turin, including an upset of Russia, before losing to the Czech Republic in their first elimination game. They’ve lived up to that billing in Vancouver with a preliminary-round shootout win over Russia, and the elimination of Sweden. But a game against a host team that is finding its form has Bondra again playing David to Canada’s Goliath.

“To beat Team Canada, wow, we have to be at our best,” Bondra said. “We are the underdogs from the beginning of the tournament, and we know that.”

Overcoming Canada’s increased physical play may be the biggest challenge.

Playing in front of a raucous home crowd, Canada’s oversized forwards ran the Russian defense into the end boards at every opportunity, roughing up Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk every shift. It seemed to break the will of the Russians, and Canada is promising more of the same against Slovakia.

“We know what Canada can do to us,” Bondra said. “They’re going to come hard at us, and we’ll try to move our feet and take some hits and make plays.”

The speedy Slovaks have shown a willingness to do exactly that, counterattacking off mistakes and turning overaggressive play into offense the other way.

Zigmund Palffy absorbed a big open-ice charge from noted heavy hitter Niklas Kronwall on Wednesday, staying on the puck long enough to send Richard Zednik away on a 2-on-1 by the time Kronwall exploded into him, leading to Slovakia’s second goal.

It was a perfect example of Slovakia’s well-structured defensive game. They wait patiently to pounce on turnovers with a group of fast, talented forwards led by NHL stars Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa. Add in the 6-foot-9 presence of defenseman Zdeno Chara and game-saving stops from goalie Jaroslav Halak, and the Slovaks are dangerous.

“We believe,” Hossa said. “We’ve got nothing to lose. If we play well defensively, we have a fair chance. It’s one game only, right?”


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