Former Esmark Stars' Forward Daniel Tkac scored the tie-breaking and game-winning goal with 2:56 left in the third period as Slovakia opened the 2020 World Junior Championships with a tough 3-1 win over Kazakhstan in Trinec, Czech Republic, on Friday, Dec. 27.
Tkac, a World Junior rookie born in Pittsburgh to Slovak parents, rushed to the net and converted Michal Mrazik's feed. After the play was video-reviewed and ruled good, the Werk Arena crowd of 4,915 erupted.
"Michal Mrazik took the puck behind the net and he found me back door," said Tkac. "All I had to do was tap it in. It was a really nice play by him, a really good pass. All credit to him."
"They had six or seven players who played last year," said Slovakia's Maxim Cajkovic. "So they had that experience. They weren't that nervous. We had only two players back and most of the team was basically rookies, making their debut at these World Juniors. And we also played in front of our own fans, so we were a little bit nervous. We knew we had to win this game to make it easier in the future. I think our hands and our minds were a little bit slower tonight."
Oliver Okuliar and Robert Dzugan also scored for Slovakia. Maxim Musorov replied for the Kazakhs.
Slovakia outshot Kazakhstan 24-23 for the game, as both goaltenders, Vladislav Nurek and his Slovak counterpart Samuel Hlavaj, starred between the pipes.
This was Slovakia's fourth straight win over Kazakhstan in World Junior history.
Trinec is just minutes from the Slovakian border, and Werk Arena was packed with flag-waving, partisan fans.
Slovakia has never had a smooth ride at this tournament. In the 21st century, easily the biggest highlight remains winning bronze in 2015 in Montreal, which broke up a string of seventh- and eighth-place finishes. Regardless, nothing quells hockey fever in the Central European nation of 5.4 million people.
The evenly played up-tempo and physical game was scoreless through one period of play.
In the second period, Slovakia finally drew first blood on the power play with a great shot from the right faceoff circle at 4:49.
Kzakhstan equalized with a power-play marker near the midway mark.
"We just kept playing our game," Tkac said. "We were all positive. We just knew what we had to do and we did it in the end."
As the grit and intensity picked up in the final frame, it set-up Tkac's heroic moment late in the third.
With seven seconds remaining, Slovakia would add an empty-netter to round out the scoring.
Next up for Team Slovakia is a match on Dec. 28 with Team Finland back at the Werk Arena. Team Finland dropped their opening game at the World Championships to Team Sweden.