BEIJING – There’s an old adage in international hockey that you don’t have to win all the games in a tournament, you just have to win the right ones.
Entering the knockout portion of the 2022 men’s Olympic hockey tournament as the only squad to win all three of its preliminary round games, the top-seeded Americans were feeling pretty good about themselves. But the reality is, they don’t hand out Olympic medals for how you start, only how you finish.
For the second straight Olympics, a U.S. squad saw their medal hopes dashed in a shootout. While the 2018 loss to the Czech Republic was a tough pill to swallow, today’s 3-2 defeat at the hands of Slovakia may be even tougher.
Clinging to a 2-1 lead, the U.S. surrendered the equalizer with 43.7 seconds left in regulation to give the Slovaks new life. When a 10-minute three-on-three overtime session couldn’t settle the score, the U.S. found itself staring at the prospect of another Olympic shootout.
“Hockey’s a game of inches. That’s all you can say,” said veteran defenseman Steven Kampfer. “The Slovaks played well and stuck to their identity, and when it comes down to a shootout there’s really not much else you can do.”
The crucial crossover game has never been kind to the U.S., who came into the tournament with a 4-4 record in the quarterfinals. It requires a certain mindset to play with an equal mix of determination and desperation knowing there is no tomorrow for the vanquished.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” said U.S. head coach David Quinn. “No disrespect for Slovakia or anybody else but we felt good about the direction of our team and the way we were playing.”
For the third straight game the U.S. fell behind early when a breakdown in defensive zone coverage left Juraj Slafkovsky alone in front of the net and the 17-year-old phenom, who many consider the top pick in the 2022 NHL draft, made no mistake for his tournament-leading fifth goal.
As they’ve managed to do in previous games after digging an early hole, the U.S. rallied in the final minute of the period when Nick Abruzzese cashed in a Matty Beniers pass for the equalizer.
The U.S. got an unexpected scoring boost from Sam Hentges, who did not play in the first two games of the tournament. Inserted in the lineup for his defensive reliability, the St. Cloud State forward gave the U.S. the lead early in the middle frame when he took a pass from Nathan Smith and spun around in the slot and tucked it past Slovak goalie Patrik Rybar.
The Americans lost a critical cog in their offensive machine when Brian O’Neill, the only returning player from the 2018 team, blocked a shot in the second period and left the game with a foot injury.
“Losing [O’Neill] hurt,” Quinn said. “He’s one of our top players and gets hurt blocking a shot being a selfless player that he is.”
The U.S had plenty of chances to put the game away in the third period but couldn’t cash in on a critical two-man advantage, which swung the pendulum of momentum in the Slovak’s favor.
“When you’ve got a five on three in that scenario and you don’t capitalize on it, you’re giving that other team a lot of hope,” Quinn said.
With seconds ticking down and their goaltender pulled for an extra attacker, the Slovaks scored the equalizer when U.S. goaltender Straus Mann couldn’t handle Michal Cajkovsky’s point shot and Marek Hrivik was there to poke in the rebound.
“They were throwing pucks at the net from a lot of spots and trying to crash the net. I was fighting to see pucks and trying to smother rebounds as best as I could,” Mann said after his 34-save effort.
“We felt confident with our 2-1 lead until they tied it. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It’s just hockey.”
The U.S. generated chances in the three-on-three overtime, including several by Beniers, but neither team could score in the extra session.
“We thought [the overtime format] was to our advantage because of our speed and our skill,” Quinn said. “We actually scrimmaged three on three yesterday in practice so our guys felt like they were prepared and it looked like it. We had some great chances but we just weren’t able to bury them.”
Both goalies were stellar in the shootout, trading save for save until Peter Cehlarik beat Mann low to the blocker side. The U.S. medal hopes ended when Andy Miele’s shot bounced off Rybar’s chest protector and the Slovaks poured over the boards and celebrated their biggest win since winning the World Championship in 2002.
“It’s a tough situation with the game riding on you. I wanted to score but didn’t. It stinks, I don’t know what else to say,” an emotional Miele said afterward.
“I wish we could have kept playing … but that’s not the rules. It is what it is and they scored more goals than us in the shootout. It’s just unfortunate that this is how it ends.”
For the Americans, it was the end of a tournament that had so much promise and had some making comparisons to the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team. That squad got the breaks and the bounces they needed on their way to a “miracle.”
This team did not.