Team USA was in a do or die situation when the puck dropped against Team Slovakia on Tuesday afternoon. If they lost, that would be the end of their Olympic experience. However, the more games this team has played the better they have become. You can now see the cohesiveness that was missing at the beginning of this tournament.
Having played Slovakia once already in the round robin, they certainly knew what kind of a team they would be facing and what it would take to get the win. While they beat them in the first game, it was a one-goal differential. They needed to come out perhaps a bit harder and bury some of the chances they had missed in earlier games.
The first period was mostly a north and south affair with each team perhaps testing the goaltenders. Both teams took a penalty that neither opposition was able to capitalize on. Slovakia did have solid zone time in that first power play. The period would end scoreless, and a small margin of difference in the shots on goal.
Ryan Donato would put the Americans on the board first 1:36 into the second period. This was his third goal of the games, and in seven periods, going back to the last time USA played Slovakia, he was the only goal scorer for Team USA. With a puck on his stick and a position to score, he will take the shot. Assists went to Matt Gilroy and Troy Terry.
“I think [the other goaltenders] probably say it’s deceiving how quickly he gets it off,” Team USA head coach Tony Granato said of Donato’s shot. “He snapped one off the cross bar the other night that he had the goalie beat from the top of the circle. He’s confident. He wants the puck to shoot it.”
Donato definitely sees himself as a shooter, but credits his line mates for the success he is having.
“Yeah, I think, I mean Troy [Terry] and Arco [Mark Arcobello] are unbelievable players. They see the ice great and I think if I can get myself open and in position, they’re going to find me,” Donato shared. “I mean, they’re great players. I think if they put me in positions to score, we’ll continue to create goals. I mean, both those guys can finish and create plays at the same time, so they’re great to play with.”
Twenty-six seconds later, there were some tense moments as USA’s goaltender Ryan Zapolski, who had been run into by Ladislav Nagy, was down on the ice and it wasn’t clear if he would be able to continue in net, though after a few minutes he was back up and able to play. Meanwhile at the other end of the ice, Donato was down on the ice, also being tended to by a trainer, after having eaten Michal Cajkovsky’s elbow. The outcome was a five-on-three for the Americans while Nagy sat for two, and Cajkovsky was given a game misconduct as a result of the five minute major penalty of checking to the head. Nagy was freed 18 seconds later, when James Wisniewski scored on the five-on-three, assisted by Terry, who now had two points in the game.
Though the USA didn’t capitalize on the remainder of the five-minute major, this turned out to really be the turning point of the game for the Americans. Ten minutes after Wisniewski’s goal, Arcobella would get the United States up 3-0, again assisted by Terry. Arcobella’s shot from the slot spoke to the building confidence of this team.
Slovakia would get on the board with 3:16 remaining in the second period while on the power play. USA’s Jordan Greenway was whistled for his first of two penalties in the game. This one was a slashing. And as the second period ended, USA would be leading 3-2, while the shots for the period would be equal at 11 a piece.
The third period saw a couple of penalties that in essence canceled each other out, as the teams would play about 1:09 of four-on-four hockey. Team USA was definitely pushing back. Greenway would sit for tripping in his second penalty, which fortunately Slovakia was unable to do anything on the man advantage. And when Marek Daloga was sent off for slashing, it would take Donato and the power play less than a minute to score their fifth of the game, this one assisted by Wisniewski.
Though just 21 years of age, Donato possesses a calm in big stage games that will certainly see him well. He is willing to get in front of the goaltender and be available. He understands what it takes to win hockey games.
“We put him on a pretty significant line and gave him a power play role right out of the gate, so we had the confidence that he had…. We saw what he’s done in college. We’ve seen him at different camps. We know what he is capable of doing,” Granato said of Donato. “So, when he gets to that stage for the first time, you never ever know, but, like I said, his dad’s an NHL player and coach. So he’s grown up in NHL locker rooms. He’s seen everything about it, so he gets it. He’s a pro.”
Their shots on Jan Laco were greatly improved in this game, many of them coming from close to the crease, often in the slot, rather than from the boards. This undoubtedly contributed to the increase in scoring.
“We came in with the intentions of being confident and not just being worried about going home,” Donato expressed. “I think If we played on our heels and kind of played worried it kind of would have affected our game. I think we just played confident and the chemistry is just continuing to grow and it’s finally meshing.”
They will need that confidence and chemistry on Wednesday, when they take on the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. A more offensive team than Slovakia, the USA will have to use every skill they have in each player if they want to continue to the next round.
“They’re a little deeper offensively. But I think we’ll learn from our team,” Granato said of the upcoming game. “It doesn’t matter what the other team does. We have to attack. We have to forecheck. We have to use our offensive players that we do have; the skill set we do have. They’re small, they’re quick, they’re fast. They’re hard to play against in the offensive zone and that’s what we’ll have to tackle tomorrow.”