Slovenia, appearing in its first Olympics, booked passage to the quarterfinal stage of the men's hockey tournament with an impressive 4-0 win against Austria on Tuesday at Bolshoy Ice Dome in the playoff qualification stage.
Coach Matjaz Kopitar called his team's progression to this point in the tournament something hard to imagine.
"In the beginning of the tournament it was said that it would be mission impossible for these two teams to be playing to go to the quarterfinals," he said. "For both countries this was kind of a big game because it was historical first time."
But it was the Slovenians who got the desired result, earning a date with top-ranked Sweden in the quarterfinals Wednesday (3 a.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN).
"It is, for sure, the biggest thing we have ever done in the history of Slovenian hockey," said forward Ziga Jeglic, who assisted on the opening goal by Anze Kopitar.
"If somebody would have told me we were going to reach the quarterfinals, I would have hoped obviously but I wouldn't really believe it," Kopitar said. "But with the game that we have showed so far, I think we deserve it."
"I'm speechless," said goaltender Robert Kristan, who stopped all 30 shots he faced.
None of the Slovenian players could put into words what the win means for the tiny country, which is just starting to forge its hockey identity on the world stage. Slovenia is a country of fewer than 2 million people. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, the country has 148 registered senior male players, seven ice rinks, one fully professional team and is No. 17 in the IIHF rankings.
Matjaz Kopitar, the father of Anze and one of the leaders in the Slovenian hockey movement, tried to put the historic accomplishment into practical terms.
"I wish with this win we can get like five more ice rinks, because today the shoulders are going to be under pressure," he said, referencing all the congratulatory messages that will pour in for his team. "I want to see more ice rinks, I want to see more organizations going on in right way to handle the kids. This is the message to the people who are [responsible] for this kind of stuff."
The ripple effects of the qualification playoff victory have yet to be felt, but the accomplishment could not be denied.
"We believed we could take some points, but nobody was believing enough to say loud that we are going to play in the quarterfinal," Kristan said. "This is the moment. This is unbelievable; this is the best thing that could happen for most of the players in the locker room, except Anze Kopitar."
Slovenia arrived at this moment because it played the team game that had made it so competitive in the preliminary round. The Slovenians attacked aggressively, scored opportunistic goals, defended intelligently, excelled on special teams and received clutch goaltending from Kristen.
"Our goalie stopped all these pucks and then the game went the way we want," Matjaz Kopitar said.
After Anze Kopitar scored a seeing-eye goal through the legs of Mathias Lange on the power play 5:29 into the game, the Austrians pressed for the equalizer. Their best chance came on a first-period power play when a cross-ice pass found its way onto the stick of Michael Grabner, who leads the tournament with five goals. The forward, who plays for the New York Islanders, had a wide-open net at which to shoot -- and then he didn't. Kristan exploded across the crease and somehow got his glove on the puck, knocking it out of harm's way.
Not long after Jan Urbas scored a shorthanded goal and the Slovenians took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission and was well on their way to a date with history.
"That was probably the key save if we are looking back right now," Kristan said. "It was empty net, amazing save there. Maybe it would be a different game."
It wasn't a different game, though.
Austria never could find its offensive groove and Slovenia added a missile of a goal from defender Sabahudin Kovacevic and an empty-net goal from Jan Mursak to put the game firmly out of reach.
"We didn't have full game," said Grabner, who finished with five goals in four games. "We had times where we played pretty good and times where they just controlled the game. Obviously when you score no goals it is pretty tough to win a game."
For the Slovenians, they not only won the game but they earned the right to try to shock the world yet again.
"We would have been happy with one point before the end of the tournament," Kovacevic said, "but right now we're going for the gold medal."
0 0 0 - 0SLO
2 1 1 - 4First Period
1. SLO, Kopitar - PPG (Ticar, Jeglic) 5:29
2. SLO, Urbas - SHG (Unassisted) 11:57
Penalties - Raffl AUT (slashing) 4:25, Pavlin SLO (hooking) 8:43, Sabolic SLO (roughing) 11:12, Bench - served by Iberer AUT (too many men) 17:51Second Period
3. SLO, Kovacevic - (Rodman, Mursak) 3:21
Penalties - Pretnar SLO (tripping) 7:00, Latusa AUT (slashing) 12:21, Vanek AUT (slashing) 19:52Third Period
4. SLO, Mursak - EN (Rodman) 17:02
Penalties - Altmann AUT (tripping) 11:12SHOTS ON GOALAUT
10 10 10 - 30SLO
15 10 10 - 35Goaltenders
(saves-shots against) - AUT: Lange (L, 31-34); SLO: Kristan (W, 30-30)Power plays
(goals-chances) - AUT: 0-3; SLO: 1-5