VOJENS – Truly unbelievable! Slovenia came in as the third-ranked team out of four in Group F, but needed only two games to secure the tickets to the Sochi Olympics. Both wins came against teams who were ranked higher; Belarus and Denmark.
After defeating host Denmark 2-1 on Friday, the last two games on Sunday are just for the record. "This is a miracle," said coach Matjaz Kopitar.
Maybe already tonight coach Kopitar called his son Anze in Los Angeles and told him to prepare his passport for the 2014 Olympics.
"I am sure he has already called me, but I haven't had time to answer," said Kopitar Sr twenty minutes after the historic win, which puts Slovenian ice hockey into the Olympics for the first time.
"But he told me before we came here, that if we make it to Sochi, he will be with us. At that point we were maybe not thinking of this seriously."
Slovenia will play in the Olympic men's ice hockey tournament as the lowest-ranked team (18th) and will be seeded in Group A together with Russia, Slovakia and the United States.
When coach Kopitar calls this a "miracle" it's not far from the truth. Fact is: Slovenia has one professional team (which plays in the Austrian league) and altogether around 140 senior or pro players.
This win in Vojens is a true fairy tale. Slovenia goes to the hockey Olympics for the first time. Denmark were denied the same chance.
For the Danes, this was obviously a huge disappointment. They, as most observers, expected Sunday’s game against Belarus to be the grand finale, but now it will be an anticlimatic friendly game. Very much so for Belarus as well.
"This was a depressing loss," said Denmark coach Per Bäckman. "And we have no excuses, they were the better team. We had all the players we wanted, except for our NHLers, we got all the support we wanted, but we failed."
"What we were missing was a real leading line, with scoring punch," said Bäckman.
"Scoring punch" in Slovenian is spelled "David Rodman". He is today a national hero, scorer of both goals in this hugely dramatic 2-1 win.
"I am speechless," said a very emotional Rodman immediately after the game. "Nobody expected this from us, we came here as the third-ranked team, we have beaten both the favourites and we are going to the Olympics."
Behind him in the mixed-zone, team captain Tomaz Razingar was crying out of pure joy.
"Our team is like a family," he said a moment later. "We play for each other and that's why we can beat teams who have more talent."
Very early into the game, one could see signs that this would probably not go the way the Danish team and the absolutely packed SE Arena expected.
Slovenia could have gone ahead early, if not for goaltender Frederik Andersen.
Andersen made two splendid saves at the six minute mark of the opening period when the Slovenes buzzed his net and created multiple chances. But the Anaheim-Norfolk keeper denied Robert Sabolic and Rok Tikar with world-class stops.
Jan Urbas, Slovenia’s best player in the opening day win against Belarus, had another great opportunity when he skated in all alone on Andersen, but the Dane’s impressive size and calm made Urbas shoot the puck over the crossbar.
Denmark had, just like in Thursday’s opener against Ukraine, difficulties to get things going offensively. Patrik Bjorkstrand had the best chance in the seventh minute when his shot from the right circle went past goalie Robert Kristan but the puck hit the goaltender’s skate for a lucky bounce.
The boisterous crowd fell silent four minutes into the second frame when David Rodman walked in from the left and almost effortlessly flipped a backhander past a maybe somewhat too lax Anderson. Seconds prior to that, Rodman made a neat move eluding two Danish checkers in one swing.
"I was looking for a pass, but when I saw nobody in front of me I just went for to net," said Rodman.
"That's Rodman," said coach Kopitar. "A pure goal scorer, our difference maker."
Slovenian joy lasted all of 43 seconds. Julian Jakobsen won the faceoff in the offensive zone, Nicklas Jensen teed it up for Nichlas Hardt, who blasted it high past Robert Kristan. 1-1 and the crowd was quickly back into it.
David Rodman scored his second of the game and third of the tournament moments after Morten Green failed to capitalize on a very good opportunity in front of Kristan.
The play turned the other way, and on one of several Slovenian odd-man rushes, Rodman ripped the shot to the near upper corner, with 3:32 left of the second period.
"This time I wasn't looking for the pass, I wanted to shoot and the puck went where I wanted it to go," said Rodman.
Despite that the Slovenes were outshot 26-18 after two periods, there was never a sense of any territorial advantage for the home team. To the contrary, Slovenia always seemed dangerous on the counter attack, often rushing down in two-on-ones and three-on-twos and this trend continued into the last period.
Yes, Denmark had most of the shots, but most of them came from difficult angles and stressed situations. David Rodman’s brother Marcel had a wide open net for what would have been 3-1 with four minutes left, but Andersen made yet another incredible save with his right pad.
Coach Per Bäckman took a time-out with 2:08 left, but with the face-off in their zone. He managed to pull the goalie with one minute left and with 12 seconds remaining on the clock, Nicholas Hardt rang the puck off the post.
That was the last sound of a missed Olympic opportunity for Denmark. For Slovenia, the adventure has just started.
"A great success, not only for our sport, but for our nation," said Matjaz Kopitar.
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