A shootout winner from Ziga Jeglic maintains Slovenia's Olympic hoodoo over Slovakia and gives the Group B outsider its second victory in Korea.
Ziga Jeglic loves the Olympics. His two goals for Slovenia against Russia four years ago announced the then Ingolstadt player as one of the stars of his country's program. And, today, his shootout winner secured Slovenia its second victory here in Korea, edging Slovakia after a 2-2 tie.
"It's another very special moment for me," he said after the game. "I was really happy to be the last shooter, and I was specially eager to score against Slovakia because I played there for three years with Slovan.
"It was pretty much the move I've used for the past couple of seasons. I just tried to get some speed, maybe stop a little bit, feint and get a shot up. Sometimes, it comes off!"
Oddly, this was Slovenia's second victory over Slovakia in two Olympic meetings, even though it has never defeated this opponent in IIHF World Championship action. More significantly, it took the Kari Savolainen's men to second in Group B - an impressive achievement ahead of the Americans and Slovaks, but the four-point haul will not be enough to secure a bye to the quarter-final as best runner-up.
Captain Jan Mursak reflected on his country's apparent Olympic hoodoo over Slovakia. "We know that they’re more of a hockey country than we are," he said. "They have more hockey players, more pro teams than we do. And we are quite close to each other, so it's a bit of a rivalry now. "But they have a good team. It’s always nice to play against them. Certainly for us it’s nice to play because it’s kind of even and we can still play our hockey. Against the Russians yesterday it was harder to play our hockey when the other team was so much better."
The first period was short on incidents of note, but Slovenia quickly ensured that the second would be more memorable. Just 60 seconds in, Blaz Gregorc opened the scoring with a power play goal, smashing home a slap shot from the centre point as Miha Verlic put up a screen in front of Branislav Konrad.
Slovakia took another penalty immediately, but almost snatched a shorthanded goal on Lukas Cingel’s menacing breakaway. However, when Slovenia got a 5-on-3 advantage, it was able to exploit Slovakian indiscipline once again with Anze Kuralt doubling the lead. Mursak, a player at the heart of most of the good things in the Slovene offence here in Korea, was in business again. He picked up his second assist of the night when he cracked the puck into the danger zone and Anze Kuralt got away from Michal Kristof between the hash marks to redirect past Konrad.
Four years ago in Sochi, Slovenia’s 3-1 victory over Slovakia kickstarted a Cinderella run to the quarter-finals for the tiny former Yugoslav republic; now, with news from Gangneung suggesting that the OAR was on the way to victory over the USA, Slovenia was on course for second place in Group B and – perhaps – the start of a new fairytale.
"Last time we were in the Olympics for the first time," Jeglic said. "With all the NHL players it was an even tougher tournament for us. Now we're surprising people a little bit again, we're playing a real team game, we try to be very close together, be very vocal on the bench. I think our teamwork is the reason why we win."
But Slovakia was not about to abandon its dream of topping the group and claiming a bye to the last eight. Andrej Kudrna singlehandedly re-injected some energy into the Slovak offence, twice testing Gasper Kroselj after a surge down the right flank. Then he had the puck in the net after a Ladislav Nagy rush, but the whistle had gone before he let his shot go.
Slovakia did get back in contention with a power play goal of its own in the 36th minute. Peter Ceresnak, whose howitzer blew Russia away in the opening game, launched another missile from the blue line. This time Milos Bubela, playing his first international tournament since the World Juniors in 2012, got the tip to take the puck past Kroselj and halve the arrears.
Then, early in the third, Slovakia tied it up with yet another blast from the blue line. This time it was Marcel Hascak who circled deep to collect a Dominik Granak feed and fire off another rocket through heavy traffic in front of Groselj. The goalie saw the puck late and could not get a glove in the way.
Tomas Surovy reflected on how close his team had come to clinching top spot in the group, and booking a couple of days off before the quarter-final. "The Slovenians jumped out to a 2-0 lead and we came back to tie, but we needed another goal to win and take first place," he said. "It didn't happen. There's nothing we can do about it now. We'll see what kind of opponent we get in the next round, and we'll be ready for it."
Both teams had chances to win it in the closing minutes, with Slovakia coming closest on a late power play. Not surprisingly, the tactic was to line up another mighty shot from the blue line; Michal Cajkovsky obliged, but Groselj got behind it and the defence scrambled the puck away from the marauding Tomas Starosta as the game went into overtime.
The extras were breathless, the 3-on-3 format encouraging plenty of movement. Slovakia came closest to a winner, with Marek Daloga testing Groselj and Hascak almost teeing up Martin Bakos in the final seconds, but the action headed inexorably to a shootout.