SOCHI, Russia -- It was Slovenia’s version of the 1980 U.S. “Miracle on Ice,” a historic moment for a team whose country, with a population of about 2 million, has only seven indoor hockey rinks and only 148 senior-level players.
Slovenia’s assured 4-0 victory over Austria in the playoff qualification round of the Sochi Olympic hockey tournament was an emphatic statement by a team few expected to do anything here. But now Slovenia, 2-0-0-2 in its first-ever Olympic appearance and seeded 10th here, has a berth in the quarterfinals on Wednesday against No. 1 Sweden.
“Mission impossible,” Coach Matjaz Kopitar said of his team, which is ranked 17th in the world.
With only one NHL player -- Anze Kopitar, the coach’s son -- Slovenia had to win a qualifying tournament to get here and then was stuck in a group with Russia, the U.S., and Slovakia.
Relying on luck, perseverance and good goaltending, Slovenia squeezed out a preliminary-round victory over Slovakia and on Tuesday blanked Austria, thanks to a 30-save performance by goaltender Robert Kristan, a power-play goal by Anze Kopitar early in the first period and a pivotal short-handed goal by Jan Urbas at 11:57 of the first period.
“I think it obviously means a huge deal for us,” said Anze Kopitar, who said he had fully recovered from the stomach flu that had forced him out of the team’s previous game, against the U.S.
“Every single guy will tell you it’s a great honor play for your country and be part of this run.”
Slovenia’s run is making everyone in the hockey world take notice.
Kopitar said on Monday, “I was talking to a certain someone who knows a lot about the game of hockey and he said he’s been following us the last couple years, and he said we’ve done tremendous work and you can just tell it’s a huge jump from where we were five years ago. I think just to hear that from a guy like that, it’s unbelievable.”
Who was that guy?
“A guy called Steve Yzerman,” Kopitar said, referring to the Hall of Fame player who is the executive director of Canada’s Olympic hockey team.
Slovenia’s progress here is all the more remarkable because aside from Kopitar and forward Jan Mursak, who played briefly for the Detroit Red Wings and now plays in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, its Olympians play in lower-caliber leagues in Europe. Austria had three NHL players on its roster but Slovenia was more cohesive and effective on Tuesday.
Mursak, who scored the final goal into an empty net Tuesday, said he and his teammates always had confidence they could compete against more powerful teams and were glad of the affirmation on Tuesday.
“We always knew that if we’re going to skate with the other teams and battle, we can have good results. And this tournament finally started showing up," he said.
Facing Sweden, he said, “is going to be a really hard game. We play good defensively, we shut their power play down and if we battle with them, I think it’s going to be an interesting game.”
Asked how Slovenia can beat Sweden, Anze Kopitar was definitive.
“Good goaltending, good special teams and a lot of discipline,” he said.
Matjaz Kopitar, who praised his players' physical and emotional strength Tuesday, had an interesting take on the effect he hopes the victory eventually will have in his country.
“I wish with this win we’re going to get like five more ice rinks,” he said. “I want to see more ice rinks, I want to see more organizations going, on the right way to develop the kids.
“This is the message to the people who are responsible for this kind of stuff.”