BRATISLAVA – The 2011 tournament feels like a tournament of major upsets, with Germany taking down both Russia and Slovakia, and with Norway beating Sweden for the first time in World Championship history. And with a little bit of luck, maybe, Slovenia might have handed out a couple of surprises here, too.
In their first game against Slovakia, the score was tied after two periods. Marcel Hossa scored the game winner seven minutes into the third period, and Lubos Bartecko sealed the deal with an empty netter.
Slovenia got a little closer to a win in their game against Russia, when Alexander Radulov scored the 5-4 go-ahead goal with just 3:41 remaining in the game. And in their final Preliminary Round game, Slovenia took Germany all the way to a penalty shootout, and that to 16 shooters, before they lost, 3-2.
"I’m pretty satisfied with our effort on the ice, it’s just too bad we haven’t won any games. We’ve been close, but, at the same time, maybe pretty far away," says goaltender Robert Kristan, one of the hardest working men in the tournament.
By Wednesday, he faced 105 shots, and made 100 saves in the tournament, for tournament’s fifth-best save percentage (95.24) in just two games. Kristan played Slovenia’s games against Slovakia and Germany. For example, Switzerland’s Tobias Stephan, the save percentage leader in the tournament, has faced just 52 shots in two games, and Germany’s Dennis Endras 57.
"I’m prepared for everything here, it doesn’t matter if I face 30 or 60 shots, because every shot is dangerous. The players on this level shoot hard, they drive hard to the net, so I have to stay focused for the full 60 minutes," he told IIHF.com.
Kristan, 28, is playing in his sixth top division World Championship, and with a season in the Swedish Elitserien a few years ago – and a league-best GAA – he knows what it takes to compete in the highest international level.
"Of course it’s tough when you’re in the Top Division one year, and in the Division I the next. The gap between the two is huge, the final game in Division I is not even close to the games here. It’s tough especially for the young guys who’re playing in their first Top Division tournament," he said.
"You have to be consistent in games against teams like Russia, Slovakia. In both of those games we had problems in the end, and it’s because we just don’t have the experience of tough games," Kristan added.
The only way to get that experience is to get the players out in bigger leagues, and make the national team stronger. As it is now, Kristan would like to play exhibition games against tougher opponent, but even that is not as easy as it may sound.
"Preparing for this tournament, we only play, say, five games against teams like Hungary. You can’t compare a game against Hungary to anything here. But, that’s the reality we live in. The big nations don’t want to play exhibition games against us because they don’t believe that we’re improving," Kristan says.
Kristan sure is doing his share to convince the world. Of course, Kristan himself have just competed the last year of his contract with Croatian club Medvescak Zagreb in the Austrian league where most of the Slovenian national team players spent their club season.
"The league we play in is not that tough, the players aren’t strong in front of the net, so maybe our guys are a little scared to go to the net here. We have skill, but maybe we need a little more toughness. We have to have a little respect for teams like Russia, but not too much, then it’s hard to play," he says.
This season, Kristan had the best save percentage (92.7) in the Austrian league, and his 95.24 save percentage at the World Championship won’t hurt him if he chooses to look for another team, and not use his option year with Zagreb.
For Slovenia to have a chance in the relegation round, Kristan has to keep playing like he’s done in the first two games.
"I don’t feel too much pressure. This is my sixth Top Division tournament, and I’ve played in Sweden, which is a tough league. Of course I have a little butterflies, positive pressure before the game, but I can only do my best," he says.