In the first big upset of the men's tournament, Slovenia beat Slovakia 3-1 on Saturday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome on the strength of three third-period goals.
It was Slovenia's first-ever victory at the Olympic Games. The Slovenes deserved this historic moment for their patience, heart, and finesse.
"Our emotions at the moment, there's a lot of adrenaline," said Slovenian goalie Robert Kristan. "It's an amazing feeling to beat Slovakia with the players they've got. It's first time at the Olympics and now our first win."
At 3:23 of the third period, on Slovenia's third power play of the afternoon, Ziga Jeglic set up Rok Ticar in the slot, and he backhanded the disc through Slovak goalie Jaroslav Halak's legs. Jeglic has been hot to start the tournament, as he scored both of Slovenia's goals in its opening 5-2 loss against host Russia.
"I must say I tried to shoot high, but the puck went on the ice between the legs," said Ticar. "A little bit of luck. "
With 11:01 remaining, Slovenia jumped into a 2-0 lead as Slovenian captain Tomas Razingar corraled a centering pass that bounced through Slovak captain Zdeno Chara's skates, and he pounded it past Halak.
Just 23 seconds later, Slovenia's top forward, Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, patiently held the puck as he cut in front of the Slovak net, passing a crowd of players, and then lifted it home with Halak down and out.
That killed any chance of a Slovak comeback, as the crowd applauded the prowess of the underdogs. For coach Vladimir Vujtek's favoured squad, it wasn't supposed to be like this.
Asked to describe his emotions afterwards, Chara had a one-word reply before striding off: "Disappointed."
"It was a really bad game for us, but in this competition we are seeing the underdogs playing really, really well," said Slovakia's Tomas Tatar.
Slovakia, whose last IIHF hardware came at the 2012 World Championship (silver), is seeking its first Olympic medal. Despite struggling to develop new talent, it finished fourth in Vancouver 2010.
By contrast, Slovenia, which has just 148 registered male players and seven indoor rinks, is making its Winter Games debut in hockey. It sits 17th in the IIHF World Ranking and Slovenes have previously participated at Olympics under the banner of Yugoslavia, most recently in Sarajevo 1984.
"Hockey isn't at a great level in Slovenia," said Kristan. "Hopefully people will see this and start working on it. We've got great potential players for the national team."
"Against Russia, maybe we had a little bit big eyes," said Ticar. "You know, Russia! But after that, you know, we are there, just people, and you have to look on them like this. Today we did like this. We had respect for the Slovakia guys, but we knew we can play hockey. That’s what we did. We did good today."
Kristan outdueled Halak in net, with shots on goal favouring Slovenia 31-28.
Pre-tournament, Group A was dubbed the “Group of Death,” as it features two bona fide gold medal contenders in the Russians and Americans. But the Slovaks were supposed to be more competitive than they've been so far, and Slovenia was expected to finish last for sure. The Slovaks lost their opener to the United States 7-1.
Scoring has been even more of a problem for the Slovaks than anticipated with the absence of top NHLers like sniper Marian Gaborik and offensive defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky.
"It's not going well for our team but hopefully we can shake it up before the next game," said Slovakia's Tomas Jurco.
After a scoreless first period in which the Slovenes failed to capitalize on two man advantages, the Slovaks got the best early chance in the middle frame when Milan Bartovic set up Tomas Surovy on an odd-man rush, forcing Kristan to make a nice right pad save.
Even when the Slovaks got their first power play at 4:38, with Kopitar hauling down Richard Panik, they were unable to generate anything special.
With a brief two-man advantage to complete the middle frame, Slovakia still couldn’t hit the target.
Slovakia spoiled Kristan's shutout bid with 18 seconds left, as Jurco added a power play goal. But the Slovenes didn't care. They happily mobbed Kristan at the final siren, hopping up and down in a group hug.
"I’m so proud of my guys today," Ticar said.
The Slovaks won all three of their previous IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship encounters with Slovenia, including two straight wins in a best-of-three relegation round series in Canada 2008.
The road doesn’t get any easier. Slovakia closes out its round-robin slate on Sunday against Russia, while the Slovenes will face the Americans that day.
"We will go away and figure out what we need to do and hopefully tomorrow we will be better against Russia," said Tatar.
"It's amazing, but there's not much time to celebrate," said Kristan. "We've got a tough game against the U.S. to come."