Slovenia Upsets Slovakia 3-1
|Panthers forward Tomas Kopecky takes a shot in a game against Slovenia for Slovakia in Sochi, Russia. (Getty Images)|
SOCHI -- Slovenia wanted to deliver a statement to the hockey world at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. On Saturday afternoon at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, that statement was broadcast loud and clear for all to hear.
"I sure hope they are not going to mix us up with Slovakia anymore like everybody does," said Anze Kopitar, the only NHL player on the Slovenian team. "We've waited for this for a long time, we have believed in this for a long, long time."
This was a history-in-the-making triumph against Slovakia, a 3-1 upset in Group A that delivered the tiny country its first Olympic hockey victory in its second game. Slovenia lost to Russia 5-2 Thursday.
"We've been waiting to knock off a big hockey country and the Slovaks were world champs, finished fourth in Vancouver [Olympics], I believe," said Kopitar, who had a highlight-reel goal to complete Slovenia's scoring. "Us, just to qualify [for the Olympics] was a big deal.
"If we weren't on the hockey map before, we are now. That's a huge accomplishment for me, for every young player that decides to play hockey back home."
It was an accomplishment almost unimaginable before it played out starting at noon at Bolshoy.
Slovenia is a country of fewer than 2 million people. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, the country has 148 registered senior male players, seven ice rinks, one fully professional team and is No. 17 in the IIHF rankings.
Slovakia almost won bronze at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, beating Russia and Sweden before a semifinal loss to Canada and a bronze-medal loss to Finland. In the past 16 years, it has medaled four times at the IIHF World Championship, including a gold in 2002. Slovakia Is No. 7 in the IIHF rankings.
The teams had played eight times previously and Slovakia had won all eight, compiling a plus-25 goal differential. Slovenia had two top-division wins in its history, each in a relegation round of a World Championship: Austria (2005) and Latvia (2008). It had lost the other 27 top-flight national-team matches it played.
None of that mattered Saturday.
"Unbelievable, we just beat a great team, great players, great individuals, but we were ready today from the first drop because against Russia in the first few minutes we were sloppy," said forward Roc Ticar, who scored the first goal Saturday. "Today, we were ready from first minute."
Slovenia withstood an early push from Slovakia, which was looking to avenge a 7-1 pasting by the United States on Thursday, thanks to the play of goalie Robert Kristan. The game then shifted into a more back-and forth pattern for the first two periods.
But the third period was all Slovenia.
Ticar started a six-minute span that will be the defining moment of his country's hockey history long after all of these players have hung up their skates.
On the power play, Ticar took a pass from Ziga Jeglic and used a bit of skill and a bit of luck to score the biggest goal of his and his country's hockey careers.
"It was important goal, but it was important that we keep battling. This goal, I knew it would come. It was a little bit luck," Ticar said. "I got the pass in my skate, put it to the stick and I tried to shoot high -- I can't lie about that -- and the puck went between the legs. This time, I have the luck."
Slovakia goalie Jaroslav Halak also couldn't lie. He knew his play on that goal, which came 3:23 into the period, was a grave mistake, one that gave his opponent confidence and doomed the hopes of his team.
"I think the first goal, that was a really weak goal for me," said Halak, who was pulled in the game against the Americans. "I think that kind of set the tone for the rest of the period for us. If we're going to blame somebody, I'll take the full blame for this loss."
It is extra painful for Slovakia, which could finish last in Group A and face a much tougher opponent in the qualification playoff Tuesday. Slovakia plays Russia on Sunday in its final preliminary game.
But the road to a medal, or even the quarterfinals, may be the last thing on the minds of the Slovakians, who have been outscored 10-2 in their two losses.
"I don't think we're thinking of winning the gold medal," said forward Tomas Jurco, whose power-play goal with 17.8 seconds remaining spoiled Kristan's shutout bid. "Everybody knows where we are at.
"I just want to win some games so we can make people proud back home, but so far it is not going well for us. I'm sorry for the people who have to watch it."
The Slovenians were just getting warmed up after Ticar's goal. Captain Tomas Razingar beat NHL star Zdeno Chara to a rebound and slammed the puck home at 8:59 for a 2-0 lead. Kopitar, the country's biggest star and son of national team coach Matjaz Kopitar, delivered the exclamation point with a goal of uncompromising skill and beauty.
Carrying the puck along the half board, Kopitar skated through the check of Tomas Surovy, sending the Slovakian forward sprawling to the ice. Kopitar cut across the face of the first Slovakian defenseman, using a nifty piece of stickhandling to avoid trouble before gliding to the far circle and firing a wrist shot past a scrambling Halak at 9:22.
"I fought off my guy in the corner and I knew I had a little bit of time and we had numbers going to the front of the net," Kopitar said. "I was just trying to be as patient as I can and it worked out for me."
Kopitar's teammates weren't buying his attempt to soft-sell the goal.
"It was unreal," said Jeglic, who had both of Slovenia's goals against Russia. "He scored that goal for us and it was so important. We were just like, 'Wow, what is going on?' We just tried to keep it calm and hold up to our game plan."
Ticar said, "It's so much fun to watch him. Hockey looks so easy when he has the puck. He's a big idol for us."
The Slovenians were all hockey idols Saturday afternoon, basking in the glory of making Olympic history.
"It's definitely going to stay with me for a long, long time," Kopitar said, breaking into an uncontrollable smile.
Slovenia plays the United States on Sunday in its Group A finale holding faint hopes of finishing first.