Commentary

Reasons Slovakia could beat Canada

Updated: February 26, 2010, 1:53 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Here are five reasons Slovakia could beat Canada in Friday's semifinal clash:

1. The mental game: The Canadians said all the right things Thursday about not taking the Slovaks lightly. After all, Slovakia upset defending gold-medal champion Sweden on Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeJaroslav Halak
Luis Acosta/Getty ImagesJaroslav Halak has a .923 save percentage through five Olympic games in Vancouver.

"They've got a highly skilled team with a lot of speed," Canadian forward Mike Richards said. "[Marian] Hossa and [Marian] Gaborik are great players, and we'll have to find a way to slow them down a bit.

"Am I surprised? I wouldn't say surprised. Sweden's got a good team, but Slovakia's got a lot of speed, a great defense led by [Zdeno] Chara, and I've played against [Jaroslav] Halak a lot of times, too, and he's a great goaltender, so I'm not surprised."

But there has to be -- subconsciously, at least -- a feeling of relief for the Canadians that they have drawn an easier opponent, on paper anyway. It's not so much being overconfident, but the undeniable perception is that Canada should win this in a walkover.

"We are the underdogs. Their roster has many more star players than my roster, no doubt. They are a good team," GM Peter Bondra told a pool reporter Thursday as the Slovaks did not skate or meet with the media.

2. Jaroslav Halak: The only way the Slovaks have a chance is if netminder Halak has another out-of-body experience. The good thing for the Slovaks is Halak has been doing just that on a nightly basis here at the Olympics. He has allowed just 10 goals on 130 shots through five games and has a .923 save percentage. In the quarterfinals against the Swedes, he was unflappable as the Slovaks held off a charging Sweden team that outshot Slovakia 29-14.

''He's quick," Richards said. "He's a standard kind of butterfly goaltender, but he's got quick feet, and when you think he has the open net, he kind of kicks it over. So, you've got to be aware of that and bear down on your chances."

3. The dynamic duo: Who knew the oft-lamentable Pavol Demitra and Hossa would be tied at the top of the Olympic scoring chart with Canada's Dany Heatley and Jonathan Toews with seven points? The two playmaking specialists, who have been skating mainly with Tomas Kopecky of the Chicago Blackhawks, each have five assists to go with their two goals apiece, and they will have to drive the offensive bus once more for the Slovaks to advance to their first gold-medal game.

4. Special teams: The Slovaks upended the Swedes based on a power play that delivered twice in their 4-3 win. Gaborik is the trigger man, but there's also Chara, who can bomb it from the point, and Lubomir Visnovsky, who is an underappreciated talent from the lowly Edmonton Oilers.

The Slovaks lead the tournament in power-play efficiency with seven goals. They've scored just 17 goals in the entire tournament, so it is easy to see how important the power play has been to their success here. On the other side of the coin, the Slovaks lead the tournament in penalty killing, allowing just one power-play goal on 19 attempts. That will be key, as the Canadians have scored six power-play goals in the tournament, including two in their 7-3 pounding of Russia.

5. Blasts from the past: Gaborik might be the most recognizable face on the Slovak team -- along with Chara, perhaps -- but he is playing with two players who will be familiar to NHL fans: Jozef Stumpel and Ziggy Palffy.

Although many watched Peter Forsberg's efforts in this tournament with dismay, and Jaromir Jagr saw his Olympic tournament come to an early end against the Finns on Wednesday, one-time NHL stars Stumpel and Palffy have been something of a revelation.

Palffy, who has not played in the NHL since the 2005-06 season, has three assists, and Stumpel, who last played in the NHL with Florida in 2007-08, has one goal and three assists. And then there is Gaborik, who is as fine a scorer as there is in the game. Gaborik suffered a leg injury before the tournament began, and there were issues surrounding his availability and what level he would be at when he did make it into the lineup. But Gaborik has been fine, chipping in three goals, two of them on the power play.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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