Looks like we all get to root for our favorite team once again in 2018! After a long journey to the 2014 Winter Olympics ended in a thrilling 7th place finish, Slovenia won three in a row this week to earn a spot in the 2018 edition.
Anze Kopitar picked up an assist in regulation and a goal in the climactic shootout as Slovenia won the deciding game in Group D of the Olympic Qualification tournament over Belarus. With both teams having won their first two games over Belarus and Poland, the winner was going to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, while the loser would be going home.
After a scoreless first period, Slovenia got a couple of huge breaks; Belarus took a hooking penalty at the end of the first, and they followed it up with a delay-of-game penalty a minute into the second. Slovenia punished them, as Rok Ticar scored a power play goal on the 5-on-3 off a feed from Kopitar, then again on the ensuing 5-on-4. Belarus made sure the third period would be interesting, though, as Andrei Stepanov scored with less than two minutes to go in the second period to make it 2-1.
At that point you might expect Slovenia to go into a shell, but they actually outshot Belarus 15-9 in the third. Unfortunately, Stepanov scored again with 8:19 to go, setting up a grandstand finish. And that it was; the commentator repeatedly emphasized that this had turned into the best game of the qualification group. It only got better as the game headed to 3-on-3 overtime; Robert Sabolic nearly scored a highlight-reel goal for Slovenia, Kopitar held onto the puck for about two minutes on his own, and Slovenia’s Gasper Kroselj absolutely robbed Belarus with a Quick-esque sliding save in the final minute of OT.
So it was down to the shootout, and after two misses, Kopitar scored to break the deadlock. (thanks @aj_ranger for the GIF.)
Both Stepanov and Ticar added to their two goals with nifty shootout tallies, leaving a familiar face to try and keep Belarus alive: Andrei Kostitsyn. Kroselj stoned him with the pad, though, and Slovenia earned a berth in the Olympics for the second straight time.
Belarus came into this tournament 9th in the IIHF world rankings, ahead of 13th-ranked Slovenia, so technically this is a bit of an upset. Having said that... it’s hard to argue that it was an upset when you have Kopitar on your side. Four years after earning a stunning Olympic berth without him, Anze dropped in to make sure they pulled it off again. Kopitar finished with three goals, two assists, and of course, that shootout goal.
It’s still unknown whether NHL players will be allowed to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Either way, we’ll be rooting on Slovenia, just as we did two years ago.