Slovenia’s quest for the gold medal begins Thursday morning as they take on Russia in their first Olympic hockey game in their nation’s history. As we pointed out yesterday, Slovenia’s journey to the Olympics was circuitous to say the least.
Slovenia is currently ranked 17th in the world. They find themselves in formidable Group A along with Russia, Slovakia and the U.S.A. Their roster features only two players with NHL experience, Anze Kopitar and Jan Mursak.
Schedule (all times PST):
Thu, Feb. 13 – Russia vs. Slovenia – 4:30 a.m.– MSNBC
Sat, Feb. 15 – Slovakia vs. Slovenia – 12 a.m. – MSNBC
Sun, Feb. 16 – Slovenia vs. United States – 4:30 a.m. – NBCSN
Coach Matjaž Kopitar lead his team through their first full practice since Anze Kopitar arrived in Sochi. Although Matjaž is Anze’s father, he has thus far made it clear that he is no nepotist. First, he left his son Gasper off the Olympic roster. Second, he named veteran Tomaz Ratzinger captain over Anze. And now third, it appears that Anze won’t be starting off the games as the team’s top center.
Lines from today’s practice:
Robert Sabolič - Rok Tičar - Žiga Jeglič
David Rodman - Anže Kopitar - Jan Muršak
Tomaž Razingar - Marcel Rodman - Jan Urbas
Žiga Pance - Aleš Mušič - Boštjan Goličič
Mitja Robar-Blaž Gregorc
Aleš Kranjc-Sabahudin Kovačević
Matic Podlipnik-Žiga Pavlin
Klemen Pretnar - Andrelj Tavželj
(note: D-pairs are not official and are only projections)
Although, not initially listed as the number one center, it is expected that Kopitar will play big minutes. Linemates David Rodman and Jan Mursak are veteran, playmaking wingers that will look to create space and feed the puck to Kopitar as much as possible.
Rodman, who was initially thought to be a lock to be playing alongside his brother Marcel, is the better passer of the two but is a goal scoring threat as well. He logged 4 goals and 2 assists in qualifying matches, including both goals in their clincher against Denmark.
Mursak, 5’11" and 187 lbs, is a very good skater with good hands. He last played in the NHL a season ago with Detroit and is in the KHL this year where he has 24 points in 47 games.
Other notables among Slovenia’s forward group includes the young line of Robert Sabolič - Rok Tičar - Žiga Jeglič. Every member of this line is 25 and younger and each are speedy skaters who play a puck possession game. Jeglič may be the most talented of the three. He is currently employed by the DEL (Germany) but spent the bulk of his season with Ässät of SM-Liiga (Finland). Although currently listed as the top line, they are not in the Kopitar line’s class, but in a tournament like the Olympics they could help spark Slovenia to an upset if they are able to put together a strong game.
The back-end is where things get really shaky for Slovenia. 24-year-old Blaž Gregorc plays in the Czech league which is the highest level among the defensive corps. The defense doesn’t have much in the way of offensive talent or puck skills, but they do have a lot of size. Slovenian defensemen combine for 1,583 pounds of humanity and 198 on average. The biggest of which is 6’4", 214 pound Ziga Pavlin.
Due to their limited talent on the back-end, Slovenia will need to utilize the large Olympic ice surface and surrender the outside areas of their defensive zone while collapsing to the slot. It is a popular system in short round robin tournaments and almost helped the Finnish women steal one against Canada the other night.
Although not a world class goaltender, Robert Kristan has performed well in international tournaments. If he can get hot in the Olympics and the defense is able to give him a lot of clean looks at the puck, that will go a long way toward helping Slovenia to an upset.