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.
Former Esmark Stars forward Daniel Tkac has made Team Slovakia’s final roster for the 2020 World Junior Championships.
The 19-year-old, who was born in Pittsburgh and who currently skates for the Merritt Centennials in the British Columbia Hockey League, a dual American-Slovakian citizen, was invited to Team Slovakia's camp earlier this month and was named to the finalized roster for the event.
“Every kid growing up wants to make that tournament,” said Tkac upon his invitation to camp. “It’s the biggest tournament in junior hockey. When you get that chance, you want to make it happen.”
This year’s World Junior tournament is taking place, Dec. 26 - Jan. 5, in Ostrava and Třinec in the Czech Republic, right near the Slovakian border, which means Slovakia should have plenty of support all tournament long.
“I think there will be a lot of fans there,” said Tkac. “It would be amazing to play in that kind of atmosphere. I’ll be really excited.”
Although he was born in the U.S., Tkac and his family moved back to Slovakia seven years ago and that’s the country he currently calls home. He played most of his youth hockey in Slovakia, but decided to come back to North America to further his hockey career. He skated for Yuri Kroivokhija's U16 Esmark Stars squads during both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons.
Last year, he had 14 points in 46 regular-season games for the Centennials, but so far this year he’s the team’s third-leading scorer with 23 points in 29 contests.
Slovakia is in Group A of the World Juniors along with Finland, Kazakhstan, Sweden and Switzerland.
Tkac and the rest of his teammates are scheduled to open the tournament Dec. 27 against Kazakhstan.
A large crowd, including NAHL and NCAA scouts, was on hand for and took in the NAPHL's 2019-20 16U All-Star Game, this past Sunday, Dec. 15, at the National Sports Center Super Rink in Blaine, MN.
The game featured 42 players (12 forwards, six defensemen and three goaltenders) from the league, who were selected based on player evaluations from NAHL Central Scouting from the first three months of the season. Many of the players who participated are considered top prospects in North America in their respective birth-years and are leading the way in the NAPHL. The players were divided onto two teams, Team Hockeywolf and Team Warroad.
The Esmark Stars U16 squad was well represented as five players, plus Esmark's U16 AAA Head Coach Yuri Krivokhija, participated on Team Warroad.
Stars forward Alex Keller and defenseman Egor Busygin, picked up assists on Team Warroad's fourth goal in the second period as Coach Yuri's squad grabbed a 4-3 lead.
Star's forward Ethan Zupanc scored 30 seconds into the third period to increase the lead to 5-3. After a Team Hockeywolf goal closed the lead back to one goal, Alex Keller would collect what would become the game winning goal with five minutes remaining in the third period. Stars' forwards Adis Ultanbekov and Justin Mettrick picked up assists.
For the game, all five Esmark Stars players got on the scoresheet in the 6-5 win for Team Warroad.
"Our boy's represented Esmark well," said Stars U16 and Team Warroad Head Coach Yuri Krivokhija. "They quickly developed chemistry with their All-Star teammates and bonded well. What a great experience."
The 16U NAPHL All-Star Game was held in conjunction with the final regular season event for the NAPHL's High Performance Division.