SOCHI, Russia – Andrej Meszaros was embarrassed.
Slovakia was 0-2-0 heading into Sunday’s game with host Russia. They had been humbled by being outscored 10-2 in those losses. They had been doubly humbled to fall to Slovenia, a team that earned its first Olympic victory at their expense.
Some expected Slovakia to get rolled again, with the angry Russians bouncing back from a shootout loss to Team USA just 24 hours earlier.
Instead, the Slovaks hunkered down, got defensive, gave the hosts a hell of a scare and reestablished some semblance of pride heading into the qualification round against the Czechs on Feb. 18.
“It mattered to us – and we wanted to prove to ourselves we could play better hockey than we showed in the first two games,” said Meszaros, after the 1-0 shootout loss to Russia (2-1-0). “I think we showed everybody that we can play with anybody. Hopefully, the next game we play the same way and are going to have success.”
The Slovaks tightened their defense, despite giving up 36 shots. Russia had five power plays and didn’t convert.
“We weren’t definitely happy with how we played and we knew we had to do something to play better defensively,” said Marian Hossa.
“We knew if we played well defensively, especially in the neutral zone, we were going to frustrate them. I think that’s what we did pretty much the whole game. They tried sometimes to go individually and that’s what we wanted.”
Hossa said it’s a matter of knowing your opponent; and when your opponent has the arsenal that Russia does, it means not even thinking about going goal for goal with them.
“Defensively, we did everything that the coach asked us to do. The penalty kill was really good, obviously. We know we didn’t generate as many chances but we knew we cannot play open hockey against a team like that,” said Hossa.
“It shows when we do the system right, it’s not pretty but we don’t have a team to play tic-tac-toe hockey so we have to play this way and hope to score some goals.”
Another factor in the Slovaks’ improved effort: goaltending. Jan Laco, the team’s third stringer, was given a start after Jaroslav Halak and Peter Budaj struggled. Laco plays for Donbass of the KHL, where he’s backing up former Philadelphia Flyers goalie Michael Leighton.
He made 36 saves, playing well and getting help from his defense, like when Meszaros slid to block an Alex Ovechkin shot into an open net in overtime.
“I knew he was there and I knew there was an empty net because our goalie made the first initial save and he fell down there. It was kind of a lucky play,” he said.
Should Laco start again in the qualification round?
“I don’t know. He’s hot. It’s up to the coaches,” said Meszaros.
No matter who starts for the Slovaks, one thing’s clear: There’s still some good hockey, and pride, left in their locker room.
“You always have a chance in this tournament I guess no matter what you do in your first two games, you can still move along if you win that do or die game. We have to get ready for that and play our best hockey,” said Zdeno Chara.