SOCHI, Russia -- Kings center Anze Kopitar will lead his native Slovenia in its Olympic hockey debut Thursday, a moment he and his compatriots are sure to cherish.
Not to dampen their enthusiasm, but there is one small fact that must be mentioned: Slovenia’s opponent will be the host team, powerful Russia, which is sure to have overwhelming support from the crowd at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
Sounds like the second part of the classic good news-bad news scenario.
"Or not,” Kopitar said after the Slovenian team practiced at the Bolshoy practice rink. “It will be exciting. It’s always fun to play the host country. You feel like you’re playing an away game.
“I’m sure they’ve been looking forward to this day for a long, long time too. The crowd’s going to be fired up and we’re going to be fired up, so it should be a good match.”
Kopitar is Slovenia’s only current NHL player. One of his linemates, Jan Mursak, played briefly for the Detroit Red Wings; his other linemate, at least in practice on Tuesday, was David Rodman, who plays in Sweden. His father, Matjaz, is the team’s coach.
It’s remarkable that Slovenia got this far, especially considering that Kopitar was busy playing for the Kings while the national team was trying to secure an Olympic berth.
“It definitely took me a little while to realize what they’ve done,” he said. “And now I think it’s a dream come true for every athlete to compete in the Olympics, especially in this case. Coming in when really nobody was giving us a chance and beating out Belarus and Denmark, obviously some pretty good teams that produce some pretty good players.”
Kopitar said one of Slovenia’s strengths is its goaltending, though he wouldn’t say which goalie will start. Its likely that Robert Kristan will get the start against Russia.
“I think we have a pretty good balance with three lines,” Kopitar said. “Hopefully, our power play comes to life too.”
If it works, maybe he can bring that power-play strategy back to Los Angeles with him after the Games.
“Hopefully,” he said, smiling.
Slovenia can only hope for some breaks and some production from Kopitar against what should be a formidable Russian team.
“I guess this is pretty common for me to say but we’ve got to worry about our own game, right?” he said. “That’s what I’ve been saying in L.A., but this might be a little bit
"We can’t control what they’re going to do. I’m sure they’re going to be flying for the first game but I think if we put up the performance that we want to put up, I think everybody’s going to be surprised how well we can play.”
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