By Frank Pingue
SOCHI, Russia, Feb 18 (Reuters) - The Slovenian men's ice hockey team became the toast of their small nation on Tuesday by booking a once-unthinkable berth in the quarter-finals of the competition at the Sochi Olympics.
Not content just to be competing in their first Olympic ice hockey tournament, the feel-good Slovenian team extended their fairytale run in Sochi with a 4-0 win over Austria.
"Back home they are going crazy right now and I think in the locker room we are going to go crazy too," Slovenian captain Tomaz Razinger told reporters.
Exuberant Slovenian players spent the game's final minutes standing on the bench with broad smiles across their faces, clearly in awe of their accomplishment, before charging the ice at the final buzzer as if they had won the gold medal.
For Slovenia, a country with about 2 million people, seven ice rinks and 148 registered senior male players, simply earning a spot at the Sochi Games was considered a victory.
But after an upset win over Slovakia that helped land them a favourable draw for Tuesday's qualifier, the team have gripped the attention of their home nation.
"I got some text messages last night that said half of the nation is on vacation today just to watch us play," David Rodman said after recording two assists in the win.
"At home they are very excited and very proud of us and we are proud of ourselves too. It kind of says something about our nation, we're small but we fight."
Anze Kopitar, who missed most of Slovenia's previous game with a stomach flu, opened the scoring with a shot from the slot that squeezed through Mathias Lange's pads and trickled over the goal line less than six minutes into the first period.
Jan Urbas scored short-handed when he stormed down the right wing and fired a wrist shot over Lange's left shoulder while Sabahudin Kovacevic got his first of the tournament early in the second. Jan Mursak added an empty-netter in the closing minutes.
"We would have been happy with one point before the end of the tournament, but right now we're going for the gold medal," said Kovacevic.
"Three days ago they said it was the biggest win against Slovakia in Slovenian (ice hockey) history. Today I think this one is the biggest."
A little over a year ago, few had expected the Slovenians would even be playing in Sochi with the world's best teams. They qualified by beating Belarus, Ukraine and Denmark.
So Slovenia's two wins through four games here has taken many observes by surprise, including the members of the team.
"I don't think any of us would have expected this," said Kopitar, whose father Matjaz is coach of the national team.
"But we are a relentless group with obviously a lot of passion ... and that's what's taken us to where we are right now and we're ready to keep on going."
Slovenia will play 2006 gold medallists Sweden, a team that finished the preliminary round with the best record of the 12 teams, in Tuesday's quarter-final.
While Sweden are an overwhelming favourite to advance, few should expect the Slovenians to roll over given the jolt of confidence they will take into the game.
"If you are a true athlete, when you accomplish something you want to accomplish more and I think that's how the whole dressing room feels and we want to do more," said Rodman. (Editing by Peter Rutherford)
- Sports & Recreation
- Sochi Olympics