BRATISLAVA – If Canada lacked Rick Nash or the Czechs didn’t have Jaromir Jagr, those top-tier nations would still cope at the IIHF World Championship. However, the certainty that Anze Kopitar won’t suit up for Slovenia this year is much more devastating. When the L.A. Kings star broke his ankle and tore ligaments in a season-ending injury on March 26, it not only ensured that the Stanley Cup wouldn’t be coming to Hollywood, but also damaged Slovenia’s hopes of staying in the Top Division.
Promoted from Division I in 2010, Slovenia enters this tournament as the 19th-place team in the IIHF World Ranking. Every other participating nation is in the top 15. Making matters worse, Slovenia starts off in Group A. That could be the toughest Preliminary Round draw, featuring the top-ranked Russians, the motivated host Slovaks, and the always hard-working Germans, who managed a surprise fourth-place finish last year.
To put it mildly, the Slovenes will need bravura performances from their netminders, who split duties during the exhibition prelude to Slovakia.
Robert Kristan has appeared between the pipes in World Championship competition since 2006. Like the rest of his Slovenian teammates, the 28-year-old from Medvescak Zagreb, the Croat entry in Austria's Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL), is still looking for his first Top Division win, however. Kristan grabbed the spotlight in 2008 when he made 60 saves in a tournament-opening 5-1 loss to host Canada. He earned a 2-0 exhibition shutout versus France, which was backstopped by Cristobal Huet, on April 16.
Andrej Hocevar played in the 4-1 win over Hungary in Division I last year that secured Slovenia’s promotion, as Kristan had gone home due to a bad case of the flu. The Ljubljana native made 32 starts for Pontabba in Italy this season.
Expect the Slovene blueliners to struggle with both the mobility and physicality of their Group A rivals. Defence has never been this nation’s forte – witness an all-time 12-0 loss to Finland in 2003 – and only against Germany is the score likely to be close.
Leading the way will be veterans like Ales Kranjc, who potted two goals and an assist en route to promotion, and Mitja Robar, who will serve as an assistant captain and has told the Slovenian media that he believes this team can “surprise” the opposition. Big Gregorc Blaz, who has spent the last two seasons with Södertälje SK in the Swedish Elitserien, still has good upside at age 21.
Up front, it isn’t only Anze Kopitar, the two-time NHL All-Star Game participant, who’s missing. Another major no-show is Jan Mursak, a 23-year-old right wing with the Grand Rapids Griffins, whose scoring touch and defensive savvy remain at the disposal of the Detroit Red Wings during their Stanley Cup quest.
Yet the Slovenian arsenal isn’t completely empty. The Rodman brothers, Marcel and David, are both coming off sub-par years with the Vienna Capitals, and will be eager to strut their stuff. Another Austria-based player, Tomas Razingar, can still chip in occasionally at age 32. Watch out for young guns like Ziga Jeglic and Rok Ticar as well. The two Acroni Jesenice forwards started out as third-liners at last year’s Division I tournament, but ended up taking a starring role. Jeglic was named Best Forward with 11 points in five games, while Ticar scored seven goals, including two big ones against Hungary in the finale. Their Jesenice comrade, Robert Sabolic, just posted a team-best 33-goal campaign (second-best in the EBEL).
At least Slovenia will have one Kopitar in Bratislava. Coach Matjaz Kopitar, the father of Anze and a Slovenian hockey legend in his own right, will aim to instill a level of discipline in this young squad that’ll keep it from taking too many costly penalties. The senior Kopitar took over from John Harrington back in December. The contract with Harrington, a Minnesota native who took part in the 1980 American “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet Union as a player, was not prolonged despite leading Slovenia back to the elite 16. It will be interesting to see how the Slovenes will perform for their new bench boss in the glare of the World Championship spotlight.
It is always a remarkable and laudable feat when Slovenia appears in the Top Division. This is, after all, a nation with eight indoor rinks and 155 registered senior male players. In other words, about one out of every six of those players is on the national team. So there is little margin for error. Slovenia has never placed higher than 13th at this event, and the Relegation Round will be difficult to avoid this year too.