Team USA defenceman Jake Sanderson celebrates with a teammate after a goal in their opening game against Team Slovakia at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Team USA defenceman Jake Sanderson celebrates with a teammate after a goal in their opening game against Team Slovakia at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

USA edges pesky Slovaks at 2022 World Junior Hockey Championships

USA 3 Slovakia 2

For most of the night, Team USA looked every bit like a team determined to repeat as champions at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships.

A 3-0 lead through 40 minutes and a 28-11 advantage on the shot clock was set up perfectly for the night to end in their favour.

It was a good thing nobody mentioned that to their Slovakian opponents.

Two goals from L.A. Kings prospect Martin Chromiak and a near-miss in the third period down one goal with the goalie out, Slovakia gave the U.S. all they could handle in the final 20 minutes.

Still, the reigning champions closed out the night with a 3-2 victory.

“We had a great start and a couple of scoring chances, we had two power plays and we didn’t score and they had two power plays and they scored two goals,” said Chromiak.

“I think that was the biggest difference. They were up 3-0 almost the whole game. It’s hard to come back but we scored two goals and we were really close to tying the game. Unfortunately, we didn’t. I think our third period was great and hopefully, we’ll play next game like that.”

Slovakia, with plenty of travelling support, has also been quickly enduring themselves to the Red Deer faithful. After Chromiak brought them within a goal with 2:33 in the third, chants of “Let’s Go Slovakia” rung out in the Peavey Mart Centrium.

“It’s great to have those people here and the people who cheer for us. It gives us energy. We tried to win this game for them,” said Slovakia goalie Simon Latkoczy.

“We did everything we could, it didn’t work out. It’s great to have our fans and hopefully it stays that way.

Of course, the Slovaks don’t get within a goal without the stellar play of Latkoczy. The 19-year-old was brilliant on the evening, stopping 21 saves in the second period and finishing with 39 saves.

“Their goaltender was spectacular,” said U.S. coach Nate Leaman.

“He did not let us break it open whatsover. We had two breakaways and we had some good chances we couldn’t break it open. A lot of it was because of his play, I thought he was tremendous.”

He had no chance on the first two goals of the night, both power-play tallies. Matthew Knies opened the scoring at 13:35 and Mackie Samoskevich buried a laser 1:43 later.

Landon Slaggert added a tally 12:42 into the second but the Americans’ relentless attack simply didn’t allow the Slovaks to generate any offence. The U.S. outshot Slovakia 22-2 in the second period only to be turned aside on multiple occasions by Slovak netminder.

Chromiak scored the first goal of the night for the Slovaks on the power play 58 seconds into the third, a one-timer that beat Drew Commesso. His second cut the deficit to a goal, a great feed from Simon Nemec that he redirected in off the rush.

Commesso held the fort in the end with 23 saves and drew high praise from his coach post-game.

“He made some big key saves in that first period so we could get out front and get the lead, especially as I mentioned when to took those penalties, they had two or three looks. He came up with some big saves,” Leaman said.

“I’m really happy with Drew’s performance, it’s a great bright spot for us.”

Things don’t get any easier for Slovakia, as they take on Sweden Monday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Centrium. Team USA will take on Switzerland at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday.