Kazakhstan lost against Switzerland yesterday in a game that turned out much closer than expected for the Swiss side, and eventually ended in a narrow 5-3-loss for the Kazakhs.
In the most recent episode of Habsent Minded, Patrik Bexell and I talked about how Slovakia probably is closer skillswise to Kazakhstan than the top three teams of the group. That, combined with yesterday’s experience and this game being the Slovaks’ first outing of the tournament, could provide us with another post-Christmas nail-biter.
Slovak coach Róbert Petrovický, former NHL journeyman with five different franchises, gave QMJHL goaltender Samuel Hlavaj the start in goal after a positive fall in Sherbrooke, where he has posted a .925 save percentage during 22 games played.
Kazakhstan's coach Sergei Starygin elected not to make a goalie change after yesterday, meaning that Vladislav Nurek got his second straight start to open the tournament. Thursday’s game against Switzerland saw him conceding five goals on 34 shots, giving him an .853 save percentage.
When you combine both rosters, Slovakia’s Maxim Čajkovič is the only player to have been drafted by an NHL franchise. After getting his hockey schooling in Sweden, he was selected 89th overall by Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019 and has since turned heads with a point-per-game season with the Saint John Sea Dogs in the Q.
The first period gave us few quality scoring chances and even fewer goals, even though there were six combined opportunities for teams to play on the man advantage. Neither Hlavaj nor Nurek were challenged on the spot by significant offensive pressure and the contest was scoreless as it reach the midpoint of the first.
Nurek would not get a shutout today, either. While Vladislav Saiko spent time in the box for tripping, Slovakia got their power play going, due to Čajkovič’s hockey IQ. After getting a shot from the slot blocked, Čajkovič moved back to the blue line and served Samuel Knazko out left. Instead of shooting, Knazko found Oliver Okuliar alone with a beautiful cross-ice pass. The Lethbridge Hurricanes sharpshooter made no mistake and Slovakia took the lead, to massive cheers from the predominantly Slovak crowd.
As loud as the arena was after the game’s first goal, it was equally silent minutes later when Kazakhstan tied it up. After yet another penalty, the ninth in order, Maxim Musorov found an opening above Hlavaj’s shoulder pad while using a Slovak defender as a screen. Musorov, one of few players on the Kazakh team with KHL minutes this year, has managed to impress during these first days of the 2020 WJC. With this goal, his third in two games, he ranked as the tournament's top goal-scorer.
In conjunction with the power play which gave Kazakhstan the game-tying goal, penalized defender Oliver Turan received a 10-minute misconduct for checking to the head. Minutes later, Kazakhstan’s Stanislav Alexandrov checked an opponent from behind and instantly got the same treatment from the German and Swiss refereeing duo. A staggering 40 penalty minutes through two periods of play gave even the IIHF’s official twitter account reason to react:
Entering the third period with the game liable to turn one way or another, the Slovak crowd did its best to lead its team to victory. The players did their best to reciprocate the faith, but a lack of discipline continued to hurt. Kazakhstan got two more power plays after high-sticking and delay of game penalties, without creating the results needed.
Instead, the grandstand would eventually get their wish granted. Pittsburgh native Daniel Vladimir Tkac, currently in the BCHL, found the net behind Nurek after being handed the puck in the crease. It brought major relief in the arena for everyone except Starygin and his Kazakh team.
With less than a minute left in regulation, Starygin removed Nurek in a desperate attempt to once again tie the game up. This gave Slovakia and Robert Dzugan a chance to put the final nail in the Kazakh coffin with six seconds to go.
In the end, small margins separated these teams. This contest could just as well have gone the other way. Both nations will now go on to play Finland; Slovakia tomorrow morning, while Kazakhstan gets one day's rest to figure out how they are going to avoid another year in the relegation round.