Anyone who watched the Canada-Slovakia semifinal at the Vancouver Olympics understands just how close the Slovaks came to possibly rewriting hockey history in the waning seconds of that game.
It didn't go in, of course, and Demitra is sadly no longer with us as the veteran forward was among those who perished on the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl flight in the fall of 2011.
The Slovaks, who lost in the bronze-medal game in Vancouver to Finland, will once again be trying to shoulder their way onto the stage with the titans of the tournament, just as they have at every one of these best-on-best events for the past decade or so with varying degrees of success, although injuries to key players will make this the most difficult test yet.
Five things to watch
1. As is always the case, the Slovaks will be an intriguing group because of the individual stars who dot their lineup, whether it's former Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara on the blue line or snipers such as Marian Hossa up front. Hossa's little brother, Marcel, is having a strong year in the KHL but is coming off an injury. Also, the late withdrawal of star winger Marian Gaborik, who could not recover in time from a broken collarbone to take part in the tournament, leaves a gaping hole offensively, while the absence of defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, who isn't 100 percent after recovering from a concussion, is a big blow defensively. Without Gaborik and Visnovsky, the question that always lingers for the Slovaks is whether there is enough depth to take on deeper, more talented teams such as Canada, Sweden or the U.S. A glance at the Slovak's suddenly revamped roster suggests the answer will ultimately be no.
2. The one sure way to get on an equal footing with deeper, more talented squads at this tournament will be to get great goaltending from Jaroslav Halak on whose shoulders the Slovaks will be pinning their medal hopes. Peter Budaj is a serviceable backup, but for the Slovaks to knock off any of the tournament favorites once the Olympics move into sudden-death mode, Halak will have to be at his best. We've seen him go on this kind of role in the past, back in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs when he guided the Montreal Canadiens to a surprise berth in the Eastern Conference final, but that's a long time ago. Does he have another roll like that in him? If he does, the Slovaks could make things interesting.
3. With Visnovsky expected to miss the tournament, and with two other European-based defenders having to be replaced earlier because of injury, what should have been a strength for the Slovaks has become another question mark. Andrej Meszaros has enjoyed something of a renaissance in Philadelphia after several seasons of maddening injuries and will help take some of the burden off of the team's heart and soul, Chara. There's also Andrej Sekera, who has turned into an important part of the Carolina blue line and has more than a little offensive upside to his game. Longtime NHLer Milan Jurcina, now playing in the Finnish Elite League, will also be counted on to eat up minutes along the blue line.
4. The bottom line is that Slovakia is in a thin period of its hockey evolution. Once home to a bevy of strong NHL players such as Zigmund Palffy, Jozef Stumpel and Miroslav Satan, there isn't at this point a new generation of solid players on the horizon to take their place. That means the Slovak's success will come from sticking to systems employed by head coach Vladimir Vujtek and taking advantage of the fact more than half the roster that will suit up in Sochi plays in various European pro leagues.
5. Although the Slovaks have not medaled at the Olympics since the NHL joined the tournament in 1998, they have had success internationally with a surprise silver at the 2012 World Championships. And though they did blow a 3-1 lead in losing the bronze medal four years ago in Vancouver, there is leadership in that room with Marian Hossa, a two-time Stanley Cup champ, and Chara likewise having brought the Stanley Cup home after Boston's 2011 Cup win. Chara and Hossa are good friends and neighbors in the offseason, and Chara was given leave by the Boston Bruins to miss the final two games before the Olympic break in order to carry his country's flag in the opening ceremonies in Sochi. Between the two, they'll carry an even greater burden in this tournament than four years ago.
Breakthrough Player: Andrej Sekera, Caroline Hurricanes
As of this writing, Sekera's eight goals put him in the top 10 in the NHL for defensemen, and he leads the Hurricanes in average ice time per night. He is the top-scoring defenseman on the team in both goals and points.
Hard to imagine the Slovaks avoiding any of the big boys in the quarterfinals, and it's likewise hard to imagine them effecting what would be a mighty upset especially, given the number of players dealing with injuries heading into the tournament. Eliminated in quarterfinals.