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      Crunch forward heads to Sochi to represent Slovakia

      Richard Panik was just 19 when the Slovakian men??s hockey team shocked the world with wins over juggernauts Russia and Sweden at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Watching as his countrymen finished fourth, the highest achievement in Slovakia??s Olympic history, Panik dreamed of one day making Slovakia??s Olympic roster.

      Earlier this year, that dream came true.

      In a few days, Panik will join Tampa Bay teammates before departing on the team charter for Sochi, Russia. Though he won??t face any of his Lightning brethren in the first round, (Slovakia joins Russia, Slovenia and the United States as part of Group A in the preliminary round of the tournament), there is a chance he could be pitted against teammates Sami Salo (FIN), Radko Gudas and Ondrej Palat (CZE) and the recently recalled Kristers Gudlevskis (LAT) in later rounds of the Olympic tournament.

      Despite their strong showing in Vancouver, Slovakia is still very much an underdog contender in the Sochi Olympics. But that doesn??t bother Panik.

      ??Even underdogs can win against good teams. There are no weak teams in the tournament,?? explained Panik.

      While representing his small European nation on the international stage, Panik will also have a chance to play alongside some of the biggest names in the hockey world: Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik and his idol and hockey legend, Marian Hossa.

      ??Marian Hossa is my favorite player,?? beemed Panik. ??I also grew up liking Pavel Bure, but my style of play is more like Marian Hossa so he??s my favorite now.??

      Slovakia will face team USA at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday.