SOCHI, Russia — Slovenia’s hockey team traveled a long and difficult road to qualify for the Olympics for the first time, a journey it had to make without help from its only NHL player, standout Kings center Anze Kopitar.
But Team Slovenia on Saturday gave hope to every so-called lesser hockey nation by upsetting Slovakia for its first-ever Olympic hockey victory, a 3-1 decision that was well-executed and well-deserved.
“It’s definitely a big thing for Slovenian hockey,” said Kopitar, whose father, Matjaz, is the team’s coach.
“I guess now that we have beaten Slovakia maybe they’re not going to mix us up anymore.”
Slovakia had a dozen NHL players on its roster to only one — Kopitar — for Slovenia. And Kopitar acknowledged that he and his teammates had experienced a serious case of the jitters in their opener against Russia on Thursday, a 5-2 loss.
“We were definitely star-struck in the first game, the first 10 minutes. Including myself,” he said. “Playing in the Olympic Games for the first time, I was pretty familiar with the guys we were facing but the venue was different, teammates were different. We got caught sleeping little bit but tonight we didn’t do that. We came right out of the gate pretty strong, very disciplined. We played really solid hockey as a team.”
The Slovenians were smart and patient, and that paid off when they scored three times within a six-minute span in the third period, the first on a power-play goal by Rok Ticar at 3:23. Team captain Tomaz Razingar made it 2-0 at 8:59 and Kopitar capped the scoring with a gorgeous goal at 9:22, spinning off a defender to work his way into the slot.
Kopitar said the team didn’t do anything differently in the third period — but he evoked the wisdom of Kings Coach Darryl Sutter in explaining Slovenia’s winning formula.
“The first and second period we were pretty solid. We were getting chances,” he said. “We got a couple of two-on-ones, a couple of shoulder saves that could turn into a goal. So we just stuck with it, really. It sounds pretty simple but that’s what you’ve got to do.
“We kept on pressing and usually that’s what happens. That’s what Coach Sutter always says. It’s scoring the power-play goal at the right time and we did, and we followed up with a couple more and put a little bit insurance on it.”
Tomas Jurco, who plays for the Detroit Red Wings, spoiled Robert Kristan’s shutout with 17.8 seconds to play, but nothing could take away from Kopitar’s joy about the boost this victory might provide for hockey in his homeland. Slovenia finishes preliminary-round play on Sunday against the U.S.
“It’s going to stick with us for a long, long time and probably stick with Slovenian hockey long after we’re done playing. It might be a few years longer than that, too,” he said.
“Hopefully it’s going to help some young kids. I’m pretty sure right now that the country was watching and was excited for this Olympic Games just for that reason, because we did get qualified for the first time. I think it’s going to explode pretty soon.”
Kopitar said he gave his father a quiet fist bump before the game to celebrate their family bond. But he hasn’t forgotten the bond he has with his Kings teammates, who are doing surprisingly well here considering the Kings are among the NHL’s lowest-scoring teams. Dustin Brown had a goal for Team USA on Thursday, Drew Doughty has scored twice for Team Canada, and Jeff Carter scored three goals for Canada on Friday.
Could their success here continue when they return to the NHL?
“I think so. I’ve actually talked with Tony Granato, too, and he said Brownie had a really strong game,” Kopitar said, referring to the former King who is an assistant coach for Team USA. “I said half-joking, half-serious, maybe that’s what’s going to jump-start him.”
Kopitar also said he knows that goaltender Jonathan Quick gave Brown some heat about the fact that Brown’s goal against Slovakia was only Brown’s second point on the road this season.
“We’re a tight group,” Kopitar said. “Carts has had a couple goals, too. Drew has been scoring. Hopefully we can bring it back, yes."