VOJENS – Opening game, first upset. 18-ranked Slovenia defeated 13-ranked Belarus 4-2 in the qualifier for Sochi 2014. Veteran and captain Tomaz Razingar scored the game winner on a penalty shot early in the third period.
This was not a huge surprise, but an upset nevertheless. Not only are there five ranking spots between Slovenia and Belarus coming into this Olympic qualifying tournament, but the Belarusians have 17 players from the KHL on their roster.
"They definitely have the better players who play in top leagues, but we know each other well, we are a real team and this was a team win," said Tomaz Razingar, nicely downplaying his key role in the win in the opening game in Vojens.
Razingar's game-deciding moment came early in the last period.
Playing shorthanded and on a breakaway, the captain was pulled down by Belarus defenseman Ilya Kaznadei after two minutes of the last period and Razingar was awarded a penalty-shot.
The veteran executed it perfectly, with a low shot from five meters; 3-2 for Slovenia at a stage of the game where Belarus seemed to take over and having gained momentum after coming back from an early two-goal deficit.
"Seventy percent of all penalty shots are missed," said the 33-year old to IIHF.com. "So I wouldn't have been to mad had I missed, because we would have found a way to win anyway. And I also changed my mind midway, first I wanted to draw him out of position, but then I decided to shoot."
Good decision, as this penalty shot and the ensuing goal proved to be the turning point in the game where Slovenia got solid contribution from their veterans. David Rodman, another mainstay on the national team, restored the two-goal lead for Slovenia with 9.36 to go when a Jan Urbas shot bounced of Rodman’s body and past a helpless Vitali Koval.
The goal was followed by a lengthy video review, but it was conclusive that Rodman did nothing wrong – 4-2 for Slovenia and game over.
"We just played our game and we didn't think so much about what they did," said Jan Urbas who plays for Swedish league Växjö Lakers and who got the first goal and also assisted on the 4-2 clincher.
"But I am sure that we can improve and play even better, and we must play better to win this", said Urbas.
Slovenia took the lead at 16:30 of the first period, a power-play goal when Urbas, after a left wing rush, blasted the puck to the far corner past Belarus goalie Vitali Koval. It was one of Slovenia’s only three shots in the opening period where both teams showed early qualification jitters, and combined for only seven shots on target altogether.
The Slovenians doubled their lead with another PP-marker only 100 seconds into the second stanza. Rok Ticar made a beautiful cross-ice pace and Robert Sabolic could one-time the puck from the top of the faceoff circle into a virtually open net.
At that point, it looked like a rather surprising development considering that Belarus ranked 13th in the world and plays regularly in the top-16 pool of the IIHF World Championship while Slovenia, who last season were promoted back to the elite division, are five ranking spots behind.
The Belarusians, who looked sloppy and disorganized in the first period, picked up their game considerably after the first intermission.
It took them less than one minute to get even midway through the game. On their third one-man advantage, Alexander Kulikov redirected Vladimir Denisov’s shot from the point at 8:45 of the second period and Andrei Stepanov got the equalizer exactly one minute later (9:45).
Stepanov circled around Robert Kristan’s net and fired the 2-2-puck in to the near post past the Slovenian keeper.
It looked like Belarus had turned the game around with four minutes left before the second intermission, but the goal did not stand. Pavel Chernaok’s shot from the point got past Robert Kristan, but forward Sergei Drozd was called for goaltender interference. Replay showed that Drozd indeed bumped into the Slovenian goalie in the crease.
Yes, they had some situations where you can say that a little luck was involved, but there is no question that the Slovenians made their own luck, for a highly deserved and impressive win.
The biggest test comes already on Friday, when they face the hosts Denmark.
"We are 23 guys here with the same goal, to do our best and win," said Tomaz Razingar.
The Danes are warned.
SZYMON SZEMBERG Click here for scores, stats and photos