Slovenia flies, Austria dies
More Olympic history for underdog Slovenes
Of course, the odds are heavily against Slovenia in a clash with the Swedes, who previously won Olympic gold in 1994 and 2006 and are the defending World Champions.
But just making the final eight in Sochi is a triumph in itself. Slovenia has never played in any quarter-final in elite international hockey before, including the Yugoslavia era. It’s the biggest event in Slovenia’s young hockey history, dating back to 1992.
"Three days ago they said it was the biggest win, against Slovakia, in Slovenian history," said Slovenia's Sabahudin Kovacevic. "But now, I think this one is the biggest."
In front of 6,821 fans, Kovacevic set the tone with a goal and an assist, and Anze Kopitar and Jan Urbas added singles. David Rodman had two assists.
Kopitar said: "Yesterday I was talking to a certain someone who knows a lot about the game of hockey and he said that he’s been following us the last couple of years and he said we’ve done a tremendous work. You can just tell it’s a huge jump from where we were five years ago. To hear that from a guy like that, it’s unbelievable."
Asked to identify the "certain someone," Kopitar said: "A guy named Steve Yzerman."
It was the first-ever meeting between Slovenia and Austria at the Olympics. The Austrians won three of their four World Championship clashes all-time at the IIHF World Championships between 2002 and 2011.
The Austrians had to be slightly favoured heading into this qualification playoff game, boasting three current NHLers in captain Thomas Vanek, scoring leader Michael Grabner, and Michael Raffl, compared to Slovenia’s one NHLer, Kopitar. But Olympic scores are not determined based on NHL salary totals.Continue reading
"We're very disappointed but you've got to give Slovenia credit," said Vanek. "They played hard, and the chances we had we couldn't capitalise on and put pressure on them.'
Special teams were huge for Slovenia here, as they scored both with the power play and while shorthanded.
Austria’s long IIHF medal drought continues. The 15th-ranked nation in the IIHF World Ranking has never won anything at the Olympics, and its last IIHF World Championship medal came in 1947 in Czechoslovakia. Getting eliminated by a beatable opponent in Slovenia is a disappointment.
If you want to talk about doing the most with the least, Slovenia fits the bill. Sitting 17th in the IIHF World Ranking, they have just 148 registered male players, meaning that about one out of every six Slovenian players is here on the Olympic roster.
"Well, we’ve got 25 really good ones," said Kopitar.
Now the Slovenes are in the final eight on the world’s biggest hockey stage, and they couldn’t be happier. They’ve taken control of their own destiny so far. Upsetting Slovakia 3-1 in Group A is what earned them the matchup with Austria.
Slovenian goalie Robert Kristan won the battle between the pipes with Austria’s Mathias Lange, recording his first tournament shutout. Slovenia outshot Austria 35-30.
At 5:29, on the first power play of the day, Kopitar took a lovely set-up right in the slot from Rok Ticar, and, unguarded, fired a wrist shot that just squeezed through Lange’s pads and over the goal line. Clearly the Los Angeles Kings star was feeling better after the stomach illness that took him out of Slovenia's 5-1 loss to the United States.
"Actually, I feel very good right now," said Kopitar. "I don’t have any sickness anymore. I hydrated pretty well and felt good on the ice today."
Near the midway mark of the first, Kristan stoned Grabner on the doorstep during Austria’s first man advantage, lunging across to make a glove save on the New York Islanders sniper’s one-timer attempt from close range.
"We had lots of chances early on, in the first period, including myself," said Grabner. "And if you don't score, it's tough to win games."
Slovenia jumped into a 2-0 lead at 11:57 with a shorthanded goal, as Urbas busted down the right side into the Austrian zone and snapped one over Lange’s glove.
In the second period, the Slovenes went up 3-0 at 3:21 when David Rodman centered the puck to Kovacevic and he hammered home a high slapper, glove side again.
Midway through the game, the Austrians hemmed Slovenia in its own zone at times, but their chances skittered harmlessly through Kristan’s crease.
Just before the seven-minute mark of the third, Vanek had a great chance to get Austria on the board on a partial breakaway, but Slovenian defenceman Ales Kranjc distracted him from behind and Kristan foiled his backhand deke.
After that, the Austrians really couldn't muster anything, even though they called a timeout to strategize and pulled their goalie with 3:08 left. Mursak added the empty-netter just 11 seconds later.
At the final siren, the Slovenes surrounded Kristan in a happy mob.
"I think our goaltender was off the charts again," said Kopitar. "He made that save on Grabner in the first, and it kind of turned momentum."
"Who knows when we'll get a chance again?" said Grabner. "It's definitely a missed opportunity. We still had a lot of fun, but we expected more today."
Kovacevic, a 27-year-old defenceman for Kazakh club Sary-Arka Karaganda of the Russian VHL (one step below the KHL), returned after serving a one-game suspension for an illegal hit on Slovakia’s Tomas Kopecky.
"Everybody expected us to come last in the Winter Olympics, so it's pretty exciting for us to make it to the top eight," said David Rodman.
Interestingly, neither Austria nor Slovenia will participate in the 2014 IIHF World Championship in Belarus in May. Instead, they'll compete in the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Korea the month before to battle it out for promotion.