Slovakia stuns Swedes

TORONTO, CANADA - JANUARY 5: Slovakia celebrates after capturing the bronze medal with a 4-2 victory over Sweden at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Bronze marks first Slovak medal since '99

In a true Cinderella story, Slovakia upset Sweden 4-2 in the bronze medal game. Pavol Skalicky got the third-period winner during a five-minute power play.

For the Slovaks, this was a monumental victory. Their one and only previous World Junior medal (bronze) came in 1999 in Winnipeg.

"It was a great experience for all of us," said captain Martin Reway. "We did a great job from the first game to the last."

At the end of the second period, Swedish defenceman Julius Bergman got his stick up into the face of Slovakia’s Patrik Koys. Bergman was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct, giving the Slovaks a huge opportunity.

At 2:52 of the third, Skalicky gave Slovakia a 3-2 lead with a quick, low shot from just below the hash marks, set up nicely by Reway, who finished with three assists.

Koys, David Soltes, and Mislav Rosandic also scored for Slovakia. William Nylander and Jens Looke replied for Sweden.

Godla, Slovakia's player of the game, became the darling of both the Montreal and Toronto crowds for his heroism under relentless fire. He made his fans at home in Slovakia very proud too with this last bravura performance. Shots on goal were even at 28 apiece.

"Godla is an amazing guy," said Slovakia's Samuel Petras. "He has a lot of luck but he's very good. Everybody likes him. He's our hero. He's a rock star. He's everything for us, our god. We can pray to him because he's awesome."

The result is a huge disappointment for Sweden, which nowadays expects to at least make the World Junior gold medal game. Leading up to Toronto, the Swedes had appeared in three straight finals.

"We have no excuses for losing this game," said Swedish captain Jacob de la Rose. "We didn’t play our best hockey. That’s reality."

Coach Rikard Gronborg’s 2015 roster didn't lose a game in Toronto before falling to Russia in the semi-finals. But realistically, it wasn't as potent as last year's silver medal crew. None of these players is ready to emulate Nashville’s Filip Forsberg by becoming not just a Calder Trophy candidate but also a front-line NHL star, period.

The Swedes last finished out of the medals in 2011, when they also came fourth.

"It feels terrible right now," said Swedish blueliner Gustav Forsling. "If we played our best hockey, we’d beat them every day of the week. So it’s not good."

The American author Mark Twain reputedly said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” and that quotation could also apply to Slovakia’s hockey program. Just when everyone is getting ready to write off the Slovaks and consign them to a future of Division I oblivion, they battle back and earn some respect.

"I think the Swedes were disappointed from yesterday's game and we wanted to win today a little more," Godla said.

Slovakia opened the scoring at 2:43 when Soltes picked off a turnover inside the Swedish blue line, came down the middle, and sniped one past Swedish netminder Linus Soderstrom.

Just 39 seconds later, it was 2-0 Slovakia. Reway laid a great cross-ice pass on the stick of a pinching Rosandic. The Swedish defence was caught napping as he stickhandled in unopposed and got behind Soderstrom, sliding home a forehand.

Looking sleepy, Sweden didn’t even register its first shot on goal until five minutes into the game.

The Swedes cut the deficit to 2-1 at 10:22 with some slick puck movement. Defenceman Sebastian Aho sent the puck to Axel Holmstrom to Godla’s left, and he fed it in front to Nylander, who made no mistake with his third of the tournament.

Godla performed miracles to keep it a one-goal game as the Swedes pressed with an extended two-man advantage.

With 3:48 left in the first, Sweden drew even on a play similar to its first goal. Christoffer Ehn sent a nice cross-ice pass to Looke, who fired it past the sliding Godla’s right pad.

The second period was scoreless, although Reway had a glorious chance on a breakaway in the first minute. On a mid-game Slovak power play, Matus Sukel momentarily thought he’d given Slovakia the lead when he whipped one past Soderstrom from the slot, but the play was blown dead with a hooking penalty to Rosandic. At the other end, Godla remained equal to every test.

With about six minutes left and Slovakia leading 3-2, Canadian fans began to chant, "Go Slovakia Go!" Was this dream about to come true?

To show how long Slovakia's been waiting, well-known members of the 1999 bronze team included Marian Gaborik and Ladislav Nagy. That year, the Slovaks defeated Sweden 5-4 for third place.

"It will help our younger players to think they can win big games like this," said Reway. "We have to start thinking positively so we can be one of the top teams."

As the clock ticked down, Godla kept his team ahead with a nice glove save on Lucas Wallmark, who let one fly from the left faceoff circle.

The Swedes pulled Soderstrom for the extra attacker with 2:28 left. That only enabled Koys to score into the empty net.

The Slovak bench went wild as their bronze medal was confirmed. And why not? It's a proud day for Slovak hockey, and the players wanted to soak it all up.

"This is the best moment in my life," said Petras.

"It’s indescribable feelings," said Soltes. "For Slovakia, it doesn’t happen every day. First we finished in third place [in our group], and now we finished third. So this is like history. We will be happy forever."

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