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Saturday, February 15, 2014
A win that shook a nation

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

SOCHI, Russia -- Look into Bostjan Golicic's sparkling eyes, the sweat still shining on his happy face, and you understand moments of magic appear almost out of nowhere at an Olympic hockey tournament.

For a couple of hours Saturday afternoon, this was as good as it got for a Slovenian hockey team playing in its first Olympics.

For a couple of hours, this was the Slovenes' tournament, their game.

For a couple of hours, they weren't just a bunch of guys from a tiny country with seven indoor rinks and, according to the IIHF, 886 registered hockey players.

Anze Kopitar
Make no mistake, this felt like a gold-medal win for a nation little known for its hockey prowess.
"This is like a gold medal for us," Golicic told reporters after his undermanned team had stunned Slovakia 3-1 in the Slovenians' second preliminary-round game. "We didn't expect that, but this is amazing for us. It's history. It's our first win in the Olympics."

Someone asked forward David Rodman whether they thought they had a chance to win a game in this tournament, especially given that they were going to face the host Russians, the defending silver medalists from the U.S. and a Slovakian team with a number of top NHL players.

He paused. And paused.

"Honestly, probably not," he said. "We hoped for one, but we said we'd be happy with a point here."

But that's not how the script unfolded Saturday.

"Tough to find any words, but I thought we were a better team today," Rodman added. "I thought we battled hard. I thought we wanted to win more than they did. I thought we played as a team throughout all the zones. We stepped up together really well in the defensive zone. We showed creativity in offensive zone, and we scored when we needed to score. We're really excited about this win."

To be a hockey player in Slovenia is not an easy thing. And it will be interesting to see what, if any, impact Saturday's monster upset over an established hockey nation such as Slovakia has on the infrastructure back home.

"I think it's hard to say, really," said Rodman who plays for IK Oskarshamn in Sweden's second-tier league. "But I think we know what the situation is back home for hockey. It's tough times. Most of us have to go outside to play hockey, and it's hard living.

"I mean I can say for myself I'm not making a lot of money out of it. I hope it's going to turn around for Slovenian hockey and it's going to go for the better."

One guy who doesn't have to worry about a paycheck is Anze Kopitar, the lone NHLer on the Slovenian squad and the son of head coach Matjaz Kopitar and who played a whopping 26:50 in Saturday's game and scored the final goal on a great individual effort.

"I'm sure it's going to be a big thing," the L.A. Kings center said. "I'm sure everybody is going to be very excited about it. I'm sure that this is going to stick with Slovenian hockey for a long, long time. Hopefully it's going to help all the kids growing up, starting to play hockey. It just feels awesome.

"I think, with our game in general, we're putting Slovenia on the hockey map, which is obviously great. I hope now they're not going to mix us up with Slovakia anymore, since we beat them.

"I don't know what else to say. It's hard to put into words."

Want to know the other great thing about the Olympics?

The juxtaposition of these kinds of almost surreal moments of joy against the stark reality of the losers who stand trying to explain their failures just a few feet away from their opponents in the mixed zone where reporters talk to players from both teams is striking.

And so, a few feet away from joyous Slovene players who perhaps were doing their first-ever media appearances, were the despondent Slovak players trying to describe how they had been bested by a team that had to scratch and claw its way into a tournament and that is ranked 17th in the world by the IIHF.

"No, we didn't play well, and they played better than us and they won," said Chicago Blackhawks center Michal Handzus, who won a Stanley Cup last spring.

"We've got to play better hockey. I thought they played better than us. They outplayed us, which is kind of surprising, but they were better."

This was not a question of a goaltender from an unheralded hockey nation standing on his head and his team trying to sneak out a 1-0 win by playing rope-a-dope hockey.

The Slovenians had the better of the chances through the first two periods, pressing the pace with better speed and more urgency in their forecheck than the sluggish Slovaks. Then, with the game scoreless in the third, Slovenia erupted (and how many times has "erupted" been associated with Slovenian hockey?) with three goals in the final half of the period.

Anze Kopitar
Anze Kopitar scored the third of three goals in the third period for Slovenia.
The first, on a power play, came after a miscue by Philadelphia defenseman Andrej Meszaros behind the Slovak net and a weak effort by netminder Jaroslav Halak on the shot by Rok Ticar.

Then the Slovenians scored two more in a 23-second span a few minutes later to put the game away.

"First goal we scored was little bit lucky, but we took it and after that we keep playing hard and we scored two more goals," Ticar said. "Really, unbelievable thing for our country and for our team. I'm so proud of my guys today.

"It's nice now at home, the people celebrating, of course, because to win against team Slovakia in Olympic Games -- what should I say? They didn't expect this. They didn't expect at all that we can win; only us 25 guys in the locker room and coaching staff, we believed in that, and we showed today that we can play hockey to win, that we can win games."

Four years ago, Slovakia came within a hair of sending a semifinal game against Canada to overtime, then blew a lead and lost the bronze-medal game. Thus far in Sochi, the team is 0-2 after being waxed 7-1 by the U.S. in the teams' opening game Thursday. The Slovaks face host Russia in their final preliminary-round game Sunday.

What's different?

"Players," said Halak, whose performance must make his GM at home in St. Louis, Doug Armstrong, more than a little nervous as he contemplates the stretch run in the National Hockey League.

"We had different players. Everybody was younger. Everybody's four years older right now, and time is catching up with everybody.

"You look at our roster four years ago, we had really good hockey players in their primes. It's hard to replace them. We have nobody young coming up. It's really hard to replace them, and, I mean, it is what it is. We have to play with what we have."

By Sunday afternoon, perhaps the memory of this seminal Slovenian win will fade for many in the hockey world.

But not for the members of this Slovenian team or for their fans. Not for a long time.