Team USA has already been labeled “Mystery Men,” and had to field questions about if they are hoping that a gold medal at the Olympics will perhaps open the door to the NHL for some of them. First, none of the hockey teams at the 2018 Winter Olympics at PyeongChang have headliners on their rosters, with the exception of the Russians. The NHL refused to allow any of its players to participate—including those with a two-way contract. Second, as every player would state, they aren’t thinking past their next game. They are just elated to be able to represent their country, an opportunity that many didn’t believe would be possible.
In the case of the Americans, their players have come from many different teams and leagues around the world. While they have used technology to get to know each other and the systems to be played, they had a mere four practices before the puck dropped on their first round robin game against Slovenia on Wednesday night.
Team USA came out hard and fast, with contributing the first three shots on Slovenia’s goaltender, Gasper Kroselj. Ryan Donato, who had one of those shots, tried a wrap around, but Kroselj was able to get to the post and keep the puck out.
As the period continued, the play got a little choppy, as first Slovenia’s Luka Vidmar was whistled for playing with a broken stick, and then before the Americans could even set up their power play, James Wiesniewski found himself heading to the box for high sticking. Neither team was able to capitalize on their abbreviated power plays.
At one point while the teams were playing four-on-four, USA’s goaltender, Ryan Zapolski, was way out of position and out of his net, and Slovenia had a wide-open net to shoot on, which they did. Defenseman, and assistant captain, Noah Welch, slid into the crease and managed to block the shot denying them a scoring opportunity.
Marcel Rodman would be sent to the box on a tripping penalty and once again Team USA would go on the power play. Again, they would be unable to capitalize, though they did have a couple of good looks.
The Americans were spending some quality time in the offensive end, and eventually they were rewarded for their efforts as Brian O’Neill got Team USA on the scoreboard first with 2:16 left on the clock. As the horn signaled the end of the first period, Team USA was leading 1-0 and outshooting the Slovenians 11-3.
The second period saw Jordan Greenway, who was already making history by being the first African-American to play for Team USA at the Olympics, put his team up 2-0. However, a tiny shift of momentum was taking place as the period continued. The Slovenians were getting more chances to shoot on Zapolski. While the score remained 2-0 in favor of USA and the two-period shot total still looked impressive for the Americans at 24-12, that was more the result of the lack of shots for Slovania in the first. The shots on goal during the second period were 13-9, showing a much closer game than it looked. And while they had dominated much of the puck control in the first, Team USA was not connecting on some of their passes, which could might be attributed to their lack of time together in game situations.
The tempo of the third period showed the resolve of the Slovenians. And they would figure out how to get a puck passed Zapolski, as forward Jan Urbas cut USA’s lead in half 5:49 into the third period. Slovenia not only gained confidence from this goal, but the moment shift in their favor became even more apparent.
With 14:11 remaining in regulation, Slovenia went to work to try to get the equalizer. In most any other undertaking, 14 minutes would not seem like a very significant amount of time, but in a game of hockey that is almost infinite. A lot can happen in such a span of time. Games can change in seconds.
In the case of this game, the clock ticked down to 1:37, perhaps lulling Team USA into believing they had the game in the bag. But hockey games are 60 minutes, and the team that doesn’t play for the full sixty is usually the team that loses. At the very least such a team may find itself going to overtime, if it is a one-goal differential. Such was the result between these two teams as Slovenia’s captain Jan Mursak got the equalizer.
The game would need extra minutes, and the two teams faced off in a three-on-three, five-minute, sudden death overtime. Mursak would need only 38 seconds of that extra inning to get the win for Slovenia along with his second goal of the game, and send many questioning the choices of the men’s roster of Team USA.
It was certainly not the outcome that the Americans wanted, but they suit up again Friday at noon to take on Team Slovakia—who will not have Zdeno Chara as a defenseman this time. Obviously there are some things that the USA will want to address, and no doubt they will watch video on where things went wrong. Their strength will be shown in how they come out against the Slovakians.