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Cautious optimism surrounds Slovaks at IIHF world championship

The 16-year-old was glued to his television while watching the national team edge Russia 4-3 to win the 2002 IIHF World Hockey Championship. It remains the only gold medal the Slovaks have ever won. "It was a really big thing," said Halak, the Montreal Canadiens goalie. "It was great to watch that game. I was very proud of the guys."

Now he's playing with some of them.

There's cautious optimism around the team that it could again make a push for a medal at the world championship. Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik, Pavol Demitra, Miro Satan and Marian Hossa are among the big names to join the team in Russia.

Halak is part of that formula, too.

Goaltending has long been seen as a weakness for the Slovaks so the emergence of Halak and Avalanche goalie Peter Budaj (who is injured) has provided a boost to the national program.

"Finally we've got two goaltenders playing in the NHL," said Demitra. "Budaj's great, Halak's great and we've got one guy (Karol Krizan) who won the championship in Sweden."

Slovakia plays its final preliminary round game against Canada on Wednesday (12:15 p.m. ET). Each team is looking forward to the game after opening with wins over Germany and Norway.

"They're a very good team," said Canadian coach Andy Murray. "They could challenge the Lakers - all of there defencemen are like six-foot-six."

Halak is thrilled to cap off a dream season at his first world championship.

The 21-year-old started this season in the ECHL with Long Beach before making his way to AHL Hamilton and eventually Montreal, where he got into 16 games with the Canadiens.

It's been quite a journey for the ninth-round draft pick.

"Before the season, I just wanted to be in the AHL," said Halak. "Everything has been over my expectations so far."

Even getting to Russia was a bit of a surprise.

Halak assumed the Canadiens would send him back to Hamilton when they missed the NHL playoffs, but management decided to allow him to choose. The Habs signed draft pick Carey Price to start for the Bulldogs during the AHL playoffs.

The Slovaks were boosted by the arrival of Demitra and Hossa. They missed the first game against Norway but joined the team in time to play Denmark.

"I'm sure they're going to help us," said Halak. "They're really big stars in the NHL.

"Everyone was excited when we found out they were coming."

Hossa is one of the players preaching a cautious approach.

"We've got good names on paper but that's not enough to win the tournament," he said. "We have to come up big as a team."

Hossa was still in the playoffs with the Ottawa Senators in 2002 and missed his country's big winning moment.

But he still remembers it clearly.

"I was following it because I had so many great friends on the team," said Hossa. "It was the biggest day in sports history in Slovakia."

There are some here who are predicting they might have the type of team here to give Slovaks another memorable moment.

They will use Wednesday's game against Canada as a measuring stick while readying themselves for the must-win games that are soon to come.

"The quarter-final game is going to be the biggest game of the tournament," said Gaborik. "We have to get ready for that and see what happens there."



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