STOCKHOLM – Back in the top pool for only the seventh time in its 21-year history, Slovenia will once again be fighting tooth and nail to avoid relegation again.
And, because the L.A. Kings are in the NHL Stanley Cup chase again, Slovenia will be without its greatest player, Anze Kopitar, son of coach Matjaz.
As a result, the nation’s goals are modest. It can’t hope to beat Sweden and Canada, but it can set its sights on the likes of Denmark, Belarus, and Norway. It won’t be easy, but the task isn’t impossible, either. As their successful Olympic Qualification campaign has shown.
Andrej Hocevar and Robert Kristan are the veterans in goal. The 28-year-old Hocevar is playing in his fourth, top-level Worlds, but in five previous games he has yet to post a victory. Kristan, two years older, is in his sixth World Championship in the highest pool but has a record of 1-2-14, inauspicious numbers, to be sure.
19-year-old Luka Gracnar could become a player to watch. He took the number-one position at Red Bull Salzburg from former KHL and Austrian national team goalkeeper Bernd Brückler during the season.
All but one blueliner from last year’s successful Division I team is here in Stockholm, notably Blaz Gregoric and Mitja Robar, both capable of providing offence. Missing is Damjan Dervaric, however.
The big difference is the adjustment they’ll have to make by stepping up a level of play. Players in the top pool are bigger and faster and will give the Slovenian defencemen less time to react.
On a positive note, all defencemen played outside Slovenia this past season, gaining greater experience in Sweden (Ziga Pavlin), the Czech Republic (Matic Podlipnik, Miha Stebih), and Slovakia (Sabahudin Kovacevic) to name just a few countries the Slovenians have migrated to.
Slovenia has scored just 21 goals in its last 11 games in the last two top-level appearances, and overall, of the team’s 35 games in the top pool, it has scored only one goal or been shut out in 14 games. Putting the puck in the net is simply much more difficult against the top 16 teams than it is in Division I.
To make matters worse, their top scorer from last year, Rok Ticar, is not on the roster for 2013, making the task of scoring all the more difficult.
The 34-year-old Tomaz Razingar, a veteran of six previous World Championships, will lead the attack with his experience. He has averaged nearly a point a game in previous tournaments and is a proven talent up front.
20-year-old Gasper Kopitar, brother of Anze, is with the team after playing with Mora in Sweden’s second division. Rok Pajic and Robert Sabolic are others who will need to contribute to the offence.
Matjaz Kopitar is in his third year with the team, and his task has not gotten any easier. There is simply not a wealth of talent from which to choose, and he has to rely on tight defence to coach a winning team. The longtime player with Jesenice had several years’ experience as an assistant before becoming head coach, so if anyone knows his nation’s players, it’s Kopitar, Sr.
Avoiding relegation is the most prominent goal of the team this year. Stay up and book a ticket to Belarus is what matters first and foremost. Yet having just been promoted and being in an eight-team group with so many strong nations doesn’t bode well for Slovenia. If it doesn’t get demoted, who does? Denmark? Norway? Switzerland? The likely scenario is a trip back to Division I next year.