Slovenia’s Olympic dream alive
by Martin Merk|09 FEB 2020
Slovenian forward Jan Urbas celebrates his game-tying goal against Japan.
photo: Drago Cvetanovic
Slovenia came back from a one-goal deficit to beat Japan 6-2 and earn a berth in the Final Olympic Qualification. There the Slovenes will play in Group F with host Norway, Denmark and Korea, and hope to make it to the Olympic Winter Games for the third consecutive time.

The game was tighter than the score indicates as it was 1-1 after 40 minutes. Japan played strong defensively in the first period and created a few but good scoring chances to earn a 1-0 first-period lead but the Slovenes dominated the rest of the game and took the lead in the third period. Slovenia outshot Japan 38-13.

“We knew before the game what kind of team they are. We knew they would going to be strong in the defensive zone and make it hard to create some scoring chances, and they are really fast skaters. They just had a few chances but their chances were really good. We knew what to expect and when we scored the second and third goal it became easier for us,” said Ken Ograjensek, who scored the 2-1 goal.

Both teams liked to make things clear from the beginning in the first two days but in this top game of the group they found each other evenly matched early on. Slovenia may have had more chances but whenever the puck went to the net, it was blocked beforehand by the Japanese.

There was no shot on goal the netminders – Gasper Kroselj on the Slovenian and Yutaka Fukufuji on the Japanese side – had to stop during the first six minutes of play. Then a penalty for high-sticking against Tadej Cimzar gave Japan the opportunity on the power play. It didn’t result in too much danger during the man advantage but three seconds later the Japanese netted the puck.

Yushiroh Hirano took a lot of attention at the blue line with agile skating and eventually sent off a distance shot. Kroselj blocked to the left but Shogo Nakajima was on the spot to score on the rebound and give Japan the lead at 8:02.

The Slovenes were shocked and at 9:06 they finally got their first shot on Fukufuji’s goal with more to come when the Japanese took a bench penalty for too many men on the ice. However, the Slovenes neither used that opportunity nor another one with Makuru Furuhashi in the penalty box for interference. They had their scoring chances but Japan was as close to the second goal with a counter-attack late in an opening frame that ended with a one-goal lead for the Japanese.

“This was a tough tournament because you must win. We played 90 per cent in the offensive zone the whole tournament. The goalies had maybe ten shots a games. This is not easy to adjust your game. It’s not the way we want to play hockey. But we did our job and look forward,” said head coach Matjaz Kopitar.

The Slovenes eventually levelled the score on their first power play of the middle frame. With Hiroto Sato out for hooking and the home team launching another attack, Jan Urbas got the puck in the neutral zone, elegantly skated past Kenta Takagi and Shinya Yanadori and beat Fukufuji with a precise shot at 5:54.

“It was definitely a relief. When you have so many shots and the puck doesn’t go in, it definitely makes a difference and gets the team going. It was an important goal and we got some more later on. In the end the score looks like an easy win. But it wasn’t. They were a really good opponent,” Urbas said.

“We knew we had the quality but they were really good defensively. They didn’t allow us easy shots and they got the first goal. That made it harder for us. But in the second period we stepped up, we played our game. We deserve that win and are happy about it.”
The Slovenian players after a hard-fought win against Japan.
photo: Drago Cvetanovic
The Slovenes dominated the period and didn’t allow the Japanese a single chance but Fukufuji had a strong day in the net and with a lot of sacrifice the Japanese players blocked many shots.

The direction of the game continued in the third period and a hooking call against Kohei Sato gave Slovenia new opportunities. Just before the expiration Ograjensek got the puck in good position and gave Slovenia its first lead at 5:19.

One-and-a-half minutes later with four on four skaters on the ice the Japanese had trouble getting the puck out of the zone. Robert Sabolic deked Yanadori with some nice stickhandling and beat Fukufuji for the 3-1 goal. Now the game finally went according to the host nation’s wish and the pressure moved to the Japanese.

Japan now became more active on its own but didn’t manage to score a second goal. With 2:37 left in the game Rok Ticar made it 4-1 with a shot into the empty net when Japan pulled the goalie for a sixth skater.

The Japanese didn’t give up and pulled Fukufuji again while having a power play. With 6-on-4 skaters it was again Nakajima, who scored for Japan. But Slovenia added two more goals to seal the win. And with that the “Mission Beijing” continues with the Final Olympic Qualification in Norway.

Can the Slovenes qualify for the Olympics as an underdog for the third consecutive time?
Why not? We will go there and fight for that and we’re gonna do it.
Matjaz Kopitar
Slovenian head coach
And since it’s at the end of August, he could potentially have his son, Los Angeles Kings captain Anze Kopitar, on his team.

Until then it’s still more than half a year to go and until then the Slovenes have another mission on home ice.

“We will have the World Championship, that’s our next step. We have to get ready for that first and then we can think about later,” said Ograjensek.

The Slovenes will host the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A on home ice at Hala Tivoli in downtown Ljubljana. That makes it to chances this year to qualify for a top-level event.

Groups Final Olympic Qualification

The group winners of the Olympic Pre-Qualification Round 3 advance to the Final Olympic Qualification (27-30 August 2020) where they will be seeded in the three groups according to the 2019 IIHF Men’s World Ranking:

Group D: Slovakia, Belarus, Austria, Poland. In Slovakia (city TBA).
Group E: Latvia, France, Italy, Hungary. In Riga, Latvia.
Group F: Norway, Denmark, Korea, Slovenia. In Norway (city TBA).

Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, USA, Germany and Switzerland as the top-8 countries as well as host China are already qualified for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.

The Women’s Olympic Qualification will be played in the 2020/2021 season. The structure will be determined at the 2020 IIHF Annual Congress in May.
Slovenia vs. Japan - 2020 Men's Olympic Qualification Group G