The Olympic hockey tournament, well-known for its ability to deliver the shock factor with its single-elimination format, did not disappoint on Wednesday night after a particularly surprising result, which could effectively alter the chase for Gold in Vancouver.
It was not on the scale of Belarus' miracle in 2002, but Slovakia stunned the defending Olympic champions, Sweden, and earned the right to play in its first-ever Olympic hockey semifinal since the former state of Czechoslovakia split in 1993.
More significantly, it opens the door for the pre-tournament favorites Canada, who will pose as the Slovaks' next daunting opponent on Friday night.
The Canadians, who eliminated the other Olympic favorite, Russia, from the picture, have scored 15 goals in their last two games and enter the final four playing like the best hockey team ever.
However, the Slovaks are playing great hockey as well and looked impressive in the historic 4-3 victory over the Swedes. They took command of the hockey game in the second, scoring the first two goals 37 seconds apart.
Sweden's big line of Peter Forsberg, Henrik Zetterberg, and Patric Hornqvist, responded with a pair in the middle frame—also 37 seconds apart, coincidentally. But, the underdogs broke through in the third and found a way to win the hockey game with Tomas Kopesky's game winner.
Since its tournament-opening 3-1 defeat at the hands of rival Czech Republic, Slovakia has been playing great hockey with their best players, most notably Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik stepping up their games big time and contributing to a magical run for the country.
Even the hometown hero, Vancouver Canucks forward Pavol Demitra, has surprised with key goals for the Slovaks, including the 3-2 marker against Sweden.
Demitra helped his country knock off a Gold medal contender in Russia, 2-1 in a dramatic shootout, which ended on his cheeky game-winner. That was followed up by a convincing 6-0 win over Latvia in which they boasted six different goal scorers.
Simply put, as the tournament's advanced to the medal round, the team's been steadily building up its game. If you can believe it, Slovakia will actually be competing for a medal.
Slovakia has been a country, much like Sweden, that's put together a strong team, but disappointed on the big international stage, never breaking through the quarterfinal stage of the Olympics.
In 2006, Slovakia was the best team in the preliminary round, posting an impressive 5-0 mark to earn itself the top spot, but the country ran into an opponent that it can't seem to beat—the Czech Republic.
Slovakia's chase for Olympic hardware in Vancouver will account for the country's best finish at a Winter Games since competing for the first time as an independent nation in Lillehammer in 1994.
However, regardless of whether its for Gold or Bronze—a question that will be answered in the pivotal game against a suddenly hot Canadian team—the quarterfinal win over Sweden puts 2010 in the realm of Slovakia's greatest hockey accomplishment.
For the defending Gold medalists, it's now the third time in the last four Olympic Winter Games that the Swedes will be returning home after a quarterfinals loss—not to mention two upsets.
In 2002, Belarus pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history with an identical 4-3 victory, bouncing a puck off Tommy Salo's helmet to set up a semifinal matchup with Canada, eerily similar to Slovakia's journey to the final four.
Now, four years following its gold medal win in Torino—a moment of redemption for the country's hockey team after the devastating defeat in 2002—the Swedes have reverted back to their losing ways at the Olympics.
But it shouldn't come as a big surprise, since Sweden struggled at times during the preliminary round to find their game.
The country won their group to advance to the quarters, but it wasn't a particularly endearing tournament for the 2006 Gold medalists. They did not show themselves well against inferior competition in Group C.
Sweden narrowly beat Germany 2-0 in the opening game—in which they were outplayed for parts of it—and nearly coughed up a 3-0 lead against Belarus before finishing the job with a 4-2 triumph.
It arguably foreshadowed the events of Wednesday night, as the team was outplayed and out-skated by a speedy Slovakia team that's finding its stride.
For the Slovakians, while many have experienced their greatest hockey moment internationally, the next challenge will be a true test of their skill and character. Canada is a team that struggled early in the proceedings but, like Slovakia, is playing its best hockey at the perfect time.
Coupled with playing arguably the most talented hockey country, the electricity and hostility the players will likely experience on Friday night at Canada Hockey Place will compare to nothing the players have experienced in their professional careers, especially with a spot in the coveted Gold medal game at stake.
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