TURIN, Italy -- Because Slovakia was not considered one of the "Big Six" powers at the 1998 or 2002 Olympics, it had to play a preliminary round to get into the main draw. Each time it was eliminated before the stars from Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic arrived.
With a new format that eliminated the pre-Games games, Slovakia is showing it can play with - and beat - the big boys.
Slovakia's 2-1 victory over the U.S. yesterday, played before a rollicking crowd under the arched roof of the cozy Torino Esposizioni, put the speedy and skillful team atop Group B with a 3-0-0 record. Group A leader Finland, also 3-0-0, is the only other unbeaten team.
"Our four lines, every line brings something different for this game," said Slovakia center Pavol Demitra, who set up his team's first goal.
"We just waited for the right break."
Marian Hossa's power-play goal in the second period and Peter Bondra's quick-release shot at 1:48 of the third ably supported goaltender Peter Budaj's 29-save performance. It helped that the U.S., 1-1-1 with two games left in group play, couldn't finish its chances and has scored eight goals in three games. Much more of that, and the U.S. could be finished before the playoffs start.
The top four teams in each six-team group will advance to the quarterfinals Wednesday. The U.S. will play Sweden today and Russia on Tuesday.
"The Slovakian team played very well. The U.S. team played very hard," U.S. coach Peter Laviolette said. "There's still more for us to give and more for us to do."
After a fast-paced but scoreless first period, Slovakia broke through at 14:20 of the second period. Gaining a power play after U.S. defenseman Mathieu Schneider was penalized for checking Ronald Petrovicky from behind - an offense that carries an automatic misconduct penalty under international rules - Demitra set up the goal with a fine pass to Hossa. The slick forward, a left-handed shooter, beat U.S. goalie Rick DiPietro from the right circle to trigger chants and cheers around the arena.
The U.S. responded with a power-play goal, at 18:24. Scott Gomez won a faceoff in Slovakia's zone and slid the puck back to New Jersey Devils teammate Brian Rafalski. He passed to Brian Rolston, who fired a rolling puck to Budaj's far side.
Helene Elliott writes for the Los Angeles Times.