Saturday, February 9, 2013

2014 Final Olympic Qualification Update

We told you so!

We had originally planned on posting a simple progress update on the 2014 Final Olympic Qualification tournaments with a complete wrap-up of the winners on Monday, but as we promised, the Olympic qualification tournament can provide some some of the most dramatic moments and we certainly had one of those today!

Beginning with Group E in Riga, things have gone as expected, with #11 ranked Latvia winning an easy one over #21 Great Britain 6-2 and putting themselves in a position to advance with a follow-up 3-2 win over #17 Kazakhstan. It was not without it's drama however, as the game was tied at 2-2 heading into the third period. Latvia scored just 40 seconds into the period and needed to fend off the Kazakhs for the remainder of the period thanks to being unable to put any more distance between them, which included the Kazakhs  pulling their goaltender for most of the final minute of the game.

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Latvia hopes this celebration is just a rehearsal for a similar scene on Sunday

In the other games, Kazakhstan defeated France 3-2, while France rebounded with a 4-2 win over Great Britain. This leaves Latvia needing only to get to overtime against France on Sunday to clinch their place in Sochi.

Group D in Germany began as expected with #15 Austria edging #15 Italy 3-2 and the #10 Germans easily defeating the long shot #24 Netherlands 5-1 on Friday. Today saw Austria take care of business against the Netherlands by jumping out to a 5-0 lead after one period before cruising to a 6-1 win in the early game.

In the second game of the day, the Italians got on the board first at the half way point of the first period only to have Germany respond a little over three minutes later to tie the game at 1-1. 

German goaltender Dennis Endras, the MVP of the 2010 World Championships, kept Italy off the board for the remainder of regulation time, but got no support from his offense, who were unable to solve Adam Dennis, a Canadian who has been playing professionally in Italy since 2009. As the game moved to overtime, Germany was called for a holding penalty and it would take Italy just nine seconds to covert their advantage into the game winning goal by Nathan di Casmirro, another Canadian playing professionally in Italy, which sent the German fans home in dismay.

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Eventual Italy hero Nathan di Casmirro checking a German player

The results so far leave the Austrians in the diver's seat with 6 points, followed by Germany's 4, setting up a winner-take-all game between the two clubs - if Germany can win in regulation. Should the Austrians gain a point from taking the game into overtime, they would win the group and the berth in the 2014 Olympics. Despite their win, it was only worth 2 points to Italy, which leaves them too far behind Austria's 6 points and eliminates them from advancing.

Group F in Denmark saw #18 Slovenia score the first upset of the Final Olympic Qualifications when they opened with a fine 4-2 win over #13 Belarus, thanks to two third period goals. The #12 Danes meanwhile, made their intentions to qualify for the first Olympic hockey tournament in their history by shutting out #20 Ukraine 2-0.

Belarus kept their hopes alive in the early game today by hammering Ukraine 6-0. The second game between Denmark and Slovenia saw the first period end scoreless despite Denmark outshooting Slovenia 13-10. David Rodman got everyone's attention with a backhand goal for Slovenia at the 3:33 mark of the second period, but Nichlas Hardt stuck back for the home Danes less than one minute later with his goal at 4:16.

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David Rodman celebrates one of his two goals for Slovenia

David Rodman put the Slovenians back on top though with a goal at 16:28, which included an assist from his brother Marcel Rodman. The remainder of the period passed scoreless as Slovenia outshot Denmark 12-6.

The third period belonged to the goaltenders, as Robert Kristan for Slovenia and Frederik Andersen stood fast as Slovenia pressed for a third goal with 12 shots, while Denmark sought the equalizer with 10 of their own. Denmark pulled Andersen for all but 17 seconds of the final 1:35, but Slovenia held on for not only the unexpected win, but actually clinched first place in the group to punch their ticket to Sochi after just two games!

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Robert Kristan keeping Denmark at bay for Slovenia

Yes, shockingly, with Denmark and Belarus scheduled to play each other tomorrow, even if Slovenia were to lose to winless, goalless Ukraine, they hold the tie breaker over both Denmark and Belarus, who could only tie Slovenia at 6 points.

"This is a miracle," Slovenia head coach Matjaz Kopitar, father of the Los Angeles Kings Anze Kopitar, was quoted as saying afterwards. "A great success, not only for our sport, but for our nation."

Goal scorer Rodman was quoted as saying, "I am speechless. Nobody expected this from us. We came here as the third-ranked team. We have beaten both the favorites and we are going to the Olympics."

Don't forget, despite the dramatics Friday with the upset of Germany by Italy and Slovenia's qualification for Sochi, there are still two more places up for grabs on Sunday in both Germany and Latvia, which could only lead to further fireworks, particularly Germany's game against Austria.

Today's featured jersey is a 2006 Slovenia National Team Anze Kopitar jersey. Slovenia will be making it's first appearance in the Olympics. 2006 was the first season of the new Nike Swift jerseys and future NHLer Anze Kopitar wore this style, with the #13 rather than his now customary #11, when Slovenia competed in the Top Division of the World Championships for the fourth of only six times to date.

In Sochi in 2014, Slovenia will be seeded in Group A with powerhouses Russia, Slovakia and the United States, but no matter the results, making the Olympics for the first time was as good as gold for this emerging hockey nation.

To put the scope of their accomplishment into perspective, the entire nation has one professional team, which plays in the Austrian Hockey League and has a total of 140 senior or professional players.

Their program dates back to 1992 after the breakup of Yugoslavia. They started out life in Pool C of the IIHF World Championship ladder system. It would take until 1997 for a promotion to Pool B. They would remain there through 2000 and in 2001, they were assigned to the new Division I, Group B, a tournament they hosted in the capital of Ljubljana.

After Great Britain pounded Kazakhstan 9-0, Slovenia responded with a 12-0 demolition of Estonia to win the group based on goal differential (38-33 over Great Britain) and earn their first promotion to the Top Division of the IIHF.

Since then it has been an up and down run for the Slovenians as they seek to establish themselves as a regular Top Division nation. After staying up in their first World Championship in 2002, they were relegated back to Division I in 2003, promoted again in 2004, relegated again in 2006, promoted immediately in 2007, relegated again in 2008, promoted in 2010 only to be relegated in 2011 and promoted yet again in 2012, their fifth promotion in six tries since 2001.

While their odds of a medal in Sochi are frankly none, qualifying for their first Olympics will hopefully have the effect of energizing the nation, attracting more and better players, generating more funding for development and supply the national team with an infusion of talent which will enable Slovenia to maintain a regular place in the Top Division at the World Championships as well as become a regular participant at future Olympics.

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Today's video section is a report from the Final Olympic Qualification, featuring highlights from all the action on Friday's Day Two, including Italy's upset win over Germany and Slovakia's emotional triumph.


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