SOCHI, Russia - American hockey fans will always have Lake Placid and now Slovenia will always have Sochi.
While Slovenia's 3-1 win against Slovakia doesn't match the magnitude of the USA's 1980 Miracle on Ice, it is highly unexpected and clearly cause for major celebration in a smaller country with a population of roughly 2 million people. Slovenia is ranked 18th in the world in hockey and is making its first Olympic appearance in the men's tournament.
"This is like a gold medal for us," said Slovenia forward Bostjan Golicic.
The pride was evident in the Slovenia players as they headed to their dressing room
"It's definitely a big thing for Slovenia hockey and now that we beat Slovakia, maybe people will not mix us up any more," said Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, the only NHL player on the Slovenia roster.
Slovenia now will face USA on Sunday. Depending on what happens between USA and Russia later Saturday, the Slovenia-USA game could be highly important to the group standings.
Entering the third period scoreless, Slovenia benefited from three goals in the first 10 minutes by Rok Ticar, captain Tomaz Razingar and Kopitar to take charge of the game.
"We can definitely be proud," Kopitar said, "because this definitely put Slovenia on the hockey map if we weren't already there yet."
Asked to describe his emotions about losing to Slovenia, Slovak captain and flag carrier Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins) said, "Disappointment."
Slovakia boasted 13 NHL players. "They were just the better team today," said Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar, who scored Slovakia's lone goal.
The game was played at 9 a.m. Slovenia time and Golicic said he expected many people got up early to watch the game.
"Our expectations were to give 150 percent in each game and see what happens," Golicic said. "But then after the first game, we got more confident. We saw that we can compete with everyone. We saw that Slovakia lost the first game and they were beatable. We just believed."
Goalie Robert Kristan made 27 saves to preserve the win for Slovenia, a country that has fewer than 1,000 registered players. He plays his pro hockey in Slovakia.
"Hockey is not on a great level in Slovenia," Kristan said. "So hopefully, some main people will see this and start working on it because this team has a lot of potential."
The Slovenians pushed hard against Russia in their first game before falling 5-2. That game was 3-2 in the third period. Kopitar said the Slovenians needed that game to "settle the nerves."
"We were definitely star-struck in that game," Kopitar said.
Slovenia had to win a qualification tournament against Belarus, Denmark and Ukraine just to get into the Sochi tournament. It was clear the Slovenians' confidence was growing as the game against Slovakia progressed. Ticar's goal gave the Slovenians their first lead 3:23 into the third period.
"This is an unbelievable thing for our country," Ticar said. "They did not think that we could win, only the 25 guys in the locker room. We showed today we can play hockey."
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