SOCHI, Russia — Anze Kopitar insists nobody should feel sorry for his Slovenian men’s hockey team no matter what Russia does to it Thursday.
Slovenia’s reward for its unexpected Olympic qualification is a debut meeting with the host Russians, who carry the expectations of an eager nation into the Bolshoy Ice Dome. Alex Ovechkin and his mates are the star attraction when preliminary-round play gets rolling with four games, including the debuts for Canada and the United States.
Kopitar is the Los Angeles Kings’ perennial scoring leader and one of the world’s best centers, but he’s also the only NHL player on Slovenia’s team, which is coached by his father, Matjaz. He’s realistic about the Slovenians’ slim chances even to win one game in Sochi, but he still plans to enjoy the moment when they face the mighty home team.
“The score is going to be 0-0 to start,” Kopitar said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a very fun game. We’ve been looking forward to it for quite a while, and it’s going to be very fun.”
Kopitar thinks the Russian team is “probably the best they’ve ever put together,” which should surprise members of the Soviet Union’s overpowering teams of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
But Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk are eager to prove their top two lines and strong goaltending can overcome weaknesses in depth and defense to win the Russians’ first gold medals since the Unified Team did it in 1992.
“I’m pretty sure it’s probably going to be my biggest tournament,” said Ovechkin, the NHL’s goal-scoring leader and reigning MVP. “You can ask any Canadian guy what his biggest moment was when they play for the national team, and of course it’s a home Olympic games.”
Canada’s loaded roster begins its pursuit of a third gold medal in four Olympics during an evening meeting with Norway, while the U.S. team opens with a tough matchup against Slovakia. The day begins with Teemu Selanne’s appearance in a record-tying sixth Olympics when Finland faces Austria.
Canada probably has the most balanced roster in Sochi, with four lines of dynamic offensive players and an impressive defense. The Canadians’ only perceived deficiency is in goal, but Carey Price has the first start against Norway before gold medal winner Roberto Luongo faces Austria on Friday.
U.S. coach Dan Bylsma chose Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick over Buffalo’s Ryan Miller for the opening start against Slovakia. The Americans’ balanced, workmanlike roster will be eager to tune up for Saturday’s showdown with Russia.
But the Slovaks are looking for Olympic redemption after falling agonizingly short of their first medals in Vancouver, blowing a third-period lead over Finland in the bronze-medal game.
Selanne won his third Olympic medal in that game, and the Finnish Flash is overjoyed to be the captain of what he says is his final Olympic team. Of course, the 43-year-old Selanne also claimed he was done with Olympic hockey after each of the past three games, only to add more chapters to the overflowing book of his career.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the experience, enjoy the moments that we have here,” Selanne said. “If you don’t enjoy this kind of opportunity, you’re not in the right place. This is the best.”