The boys from Slovenia have written quite a story so far at the 2014 Winter Olympics. On Tuesday, they made it clear that they weren't done writing just yet. A comprehensive 4-0 victory over Austria sent Slovenia, ranked 18th coming into Sochi, to the Olympic quarterfinals
We were concerned pregame about the possibility of Slovenia allowing an early goal, but they flipped the script and got on the board themselves early. They almost did it in the first minute, when Anze Kopitar deked Austrian goalie Mathias Lange and hit the post from a sharp angle. Then, with Austrian NHLer Michael Raffl in the box for slashing, prior scorers Ziga Jeglic and Roc Ticar got the puck to back to Kopitar in the high slot. Kopitar's shot squirmed through the five-hole of Mathias Lange, and though Robert Sabolic nearly helped the puck across the line, it was number 11's goal. Rok Ticar hit the post soon after, as did Austria at the other end
Slovenia's dream start was threatened by a couple penalties, and on the first Austria power play, Robert Kristan had to pull off a stunning glove stop on Michael Grabner to keep the score tied. On their second penalty kill, however, Slovenia took advantage of a turnover to double their lead. Thomas Vanek attempted to stickhandle at the line before entering the offensive zone, but instead lost the puck. Jan Urbas went the other way and beat Lange up high for a shorthanded goal, and things were looking good. The wide-open period finished 2-0, with scoring chances 11-6 in favor of Slovenia.
The second period was more of the same, and that was music to the ears of Matjaz Kopitar. His team once again found a goal before the period's first commercial break, as Sabahudin Kovacevic blasted a slap shot past Lange. (Kovacevic was suspended for the United States game after elbowing Tomas Kopecky, but came back strong with two points in this game.) Kristan was still on top of his game, with a pad save on Andre Lakos being the best of his 10 second-period stops. Vanek went to the box with seven seconds to go, and his reaction of pure disappointment and exasperation exemplified Austria's feelings.
It was quiet over the final twenty minutes; again, music to the ears of Matjaz Kopitar. Anze Kopitar was able to take a couple fewer shifts after playing seventeen and a half minutes in the first two frames, and the shots and scoring chances were considerably more limited. Brian Lebler had a partial breakaway and Thomas Vanek had a full breakaway for Austria's two best opportunities, but Kristan denied them both. Austria pulled the goalie early, and with 2:58 to go, ex-Red Wing Jan Mursak scored into the empty net. Kristan finished off the shutout, and Slovenia had their most comprehensive victory of the Olympics in their biggest game.
Slovenia celebrated after the game by mobbing Kristan and jumping up and down, so it was clear that this meant a lot to the upstarts. It was also clear that this team believes in themselves. They're already one of the stories of the Olympics; tomorrow, they'll face the top-seeded Swedes in what would be a historic upset. Regardless of what happens, it's been a tremendous story.