05/19/2012 04:08 EDT | Updated 07/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Underdog Slovaks playing for Pavol when they play for gold at worlds

HELSINKI - Belief is a powerful thing.

How else to explain Slovakia's unlikely march to the gold-medal game at the IIHF World Hockey Championship? This is a country that had missed out on the quarter-finals for four straight years at the tournament and hadn't won a medal here in almost a decade.

There's only one difference this time around: They're playing for Pavol Demitra, the long-time national team captain who was killed in the Lokomotiv air crash in September.

"We all know that we're not playing just for us," Zdeno Chara said after Saturday's emotional 3-1 win over the Czech Republic in the semifinals. "We're playing for our country and obviously with the tragedy that happened ... it's also for Pav."

This is the kind of story usually reserved for the movies. The Slovaks have been overmatched all along the way and barely got through a 5-4 victory over France that was needed to advance to the playoff round.

And now they'll face Russia for a gold medal on Sunday.

"This is something really special," said forward Tomas Tatar. "I don't even have words for this."

Demitra was always a heart-and-soul player that wore his country's colours with pride. He left the ice in tears a year ago at the world championship, when he retired from the national team during the tournament on home ice in Bratislava.

The ovation he received was deafening.

Demitra is one of the most accomplished Slovak hockey players in history, having appeared in more than 800 NHL games, which included a two-year stint with the Vancouver Canucks. He also had a standout performance at the Vancouver Olympics, where Slovakia surprised everyone with a fourth-place finish.

The team is honouring his memory in different ways at this event — some wear T-shirts with his picture on it under their equipment while forward Tomas Kopecky dons a ball cap for post-game interviews that carries Demitra's No. 38 on the front and the words "always remember" on the back.

They felt his presence during an upset win over Canada in the quarter-finals and Saturday's win over the rival Czechs.

"When you look at the game against Canada, after we scored the third goal, I just looked up and said 'Thanks God,'" said Kopecky. "He's with us, it's unbelievable. It's just a great feeling."

They will be heavy underdogs once again in the final against a Russian team that knows the pain of the Yaroslavl disaster more than anyone. There isn't a player here who didn't lose friends that day.

However, while the Russian players are reluctant to talk publicly about their grief, the Slovaks are bursting with energy. They can think of no better way to pay tribute to Demitra.

"He was really close friends for all of us," said Kopecky. "I'm pretty sure he's looking (down) from the sky on us. It's very emotional right now. It's nice to see after a win, everybody is looking up at him and singing the national anthem."