Slovenia eager to escape the drop
Slovenia is one of the yo-yo teams of international hockey – since 2010 the team has moved up or down a division at the end of every tournament, culminating in last season’s promotion back to the top tier. The success in Division I Group A wrapped up a great year for the Lynxes, coming hard on the heels of a hugely successful Olympic debut that saw the former Yugoslav republic claim an impressive seventh place in exalted company.
But now the challenge is to sustain that success and stay out of the relegation zone. Slovenia hasn’t survived in the top flight since a 13th-place finish in 2005; a decade later it’s time to start improving on that record.
Robert Kristan, who took on the bulk of the goaltending duties in the Olympics, is back with Slovenia here. The Czech-based goalie faces competition for top spot from Red Bull Salzburg youngster Luka Gracnar after his impressive form in last year’s Division I Group A promotion campaign, where he had two shut-outs in four games to help him to a 95.96% return and earn the MVP award. Gasper Kroselj, who plays his club hockey with Oskarsham IK in Sweden, completes the trio.
Consistency is the watchword for Slovenia’s defence. All but one of the players who went to Sochi are back here, while Miha Stebih and Luka Vidmar, both of whom play in the Czech league, are added to the roster. Stebih, a 23-year-old playing for second-tier Czech team Dukla Jihlava, is making his senior World Championship debut but brings NAHL experience from a season with the Wichita Falls Wildcats; Vidmar has 180 ECHL appearances but returned to Europe last summer to join Mlada Boleslav in the top Czech league. There’s plenty of international experience here as well, especially from Ales Kranj of Sodertalje and Andrej Tavzelj, who arrives in the Czech Republic after helping Toros Neftekamsk to win Russia’s second-tier VHL.Continue reading
Anze Kopitar is by far and away the best-known player in his country, and Slovenia’s only current NHLer. So when the Los Angeles Kings failed to reach this year’s play-offs it was a fantastic boost for Slovenia to be able to call on it most successful forward. However, the team does not begin and end with one player – Ziga Jeglic was one of the unexpected stars of Sochi last year, and has added a year of KHL hockey experience with Slovan Bratislava, where plays on the same roster as Roc Ticar. Jan Mursak also comes from the KHL after a successful season with CSKA Moscow where he chipped in a handy 43 points as his team topped to the regular season table. Jan Urbas scored five goals in the promotion-winning team in Korea last year and returns after a year playing for Klagenfurt in Austria. Ales Music is the only Slovenian-based player on the roster – the 32-year-old has played most of his career with Olimpija Ljubljana in the EBEL.
Matjaz Kopitar, father of NHL star Anze, has been part of Slovenia’s national team for most of its history. He was among the players as the country took its first steps following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and returned to take on coaching duties for the 2011 World Championship in Bratislava. Along the way he’s faced some difficult decisions – perhaps the hardest of which was cutting his son Gaspar from the roster ahead of the Olympics – but his success in leading the nation to Sochi has earned him legendary status in Slovenian hockey.
Saturday’s opening game against Belarus could define Slovenia’s prospects in this tournament. A good start there, and the team’s prospects open up. A poor result, though, and with the Russian juggernaut rolling along 24 hours later things could be looking bleak for Slovenia before the weekend is over. Realistically, the games with Belarus, Norway and Denmark are likely to be crucial if Slovenia is to beat the drop – although memories of the win over Slovakia in the group stage at Sochi will also serve as an inspiration for Matjaz Kopitar’s team.
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