GANGNEUNG, South Korea – For 40 minutes they seemed like a team bound for great things. For 40 minutes they made the viewers tuned in back home forget about the NHL players who are not here. And for 40 minutes they looked like they would make easy work of their first Olympic opponent.
But the game of hockey is a 60-minute affair. Or in this case, 60 minutes and 38 seconds. And when the clock struck midnight on the other side of the world, the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team found itself wondering how a night that began with such promise ended on a sour note as Slovenian team captain Jan Mursak scored his second goal of the game 38 seconds into overtime to cap a 3-2 comeback victory.
“They played a little more desperate than we did,” said U.S. forward Ryan Stoa. “Their first goal gave them life, and when you give a bunch of guys life and it can go downhill pretty fast.”
After five days of spirited practice, a lifetime in comparison to what previous teams loaded with NHL stars had to prepare for other tournaments, the Americans felt they were ready to go. And from the drop of the puck they looked the part.
This is a team comprised of players from various international pro leagues, the American Hockey League and the college ranks. For most of them their only experience playing together was at the Deutschland Cup, a three-game tournament in mid-November. The team went 0-3 in Germany but the players and coaching staff was confident that those outcomes were not a true reflection of the talent on this team.
It didn’t take long for the U.S. to put those comparisons to bed as Garrett Roe’s centering pass hit off a Slovenian defender’s stick and right to Brian O’Neill, who wristed a shot past Slovenian goaltender Gasper Kroselj. Jordan Greenway, one of four collegiate players on the roster, padded the U.S. lead midway through the second period by banging home a loose puck moments after taking an ill-timed penalty.
Brian O'Neill got Team USA on the board in its Olympic opener
Greenway, a member of the U.S. National Junior Team that won a gold medal at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, said he felt right at home on Olympic ice.
“It was exciting and something that I always dreamed of doing,” said the Boston University junior. “It would have been a lot better to get a win tonight.”
With Ryan Zapolski showing why he leads the KHL in shutouts, the U.S. seemed to have the game well in hand. But in a battle of two veteran teams, the difference may have been that the Slovenians are battle tested having to scratch and claw their way through a qualification tournament to get here. They continued to show that resilience tonight.
Missing their most recognizable player, superstar Anze Kopitar who plays for the Los Angeles Kings, the Slovenians haven’t been given much of a chance by most people in the international hockey community. But after a respectable seventh-place showing in the Sochi Olympics, this team is poised to show that it’s more than just a one-player team.
As the seconds slowly ticked down in the final frame, the ice seemed to tilt in Slovenia’s favor as the team spent more time in the American end. Zapolski did all he could to protect the lead but a seeing-eye shot by Blaz Gregorc cut the lead in half. They kept the pressure on until team captain Jan Mursak scored a rebound goal with 1:39 remaining to knot the score and then followed it up with the winner in overtime.
“It’s an unfortunate outcome and something that we’re going to have to move past,” said University Denver star Troy Terry, who had several great scoring chances in 17:32 of ice time.
“Even after a loss like this, I really like our team. I think you saw how fast we are and how we can make plays. Our issues right now are defensively. It’s the first game in a long tournament and I have no doubt that we’re going to get better. We just need to clean up a few things.”
The U.S. now has less than 48 hours to pick out the positives and address the negatives as they prepare for a Slovakian team that stunned the tournament favorite the Olympic Athletes of Russia.
“We’ll go into the next game the way we went into this one. We’ll try to be the best team we can be and try to find a way to win against the Slovaks, which will be a challenge in itself,” Granato said.
“Tonight is about filing away this game and getting ready for the next one. If you drag this one out then in 36 you’re not going to be ready to play in a couple of days. This one’s over and done with and we need to start looking forward to the next game.”
|Wed., Feb. 14||Slovenia||Preliminary||OTL, 2-3||Kwandong Hockey Centre|
|Fri., Feb. 16||Slovakia||Preliminary||W, 2-1||Gangneung Hockey Centre|
|Sat., Feb. 17||Olympic Athletes From Russia||Preliminary||L, 0-4||Gangneung Hockey Centre|
|Tues., Feb. 20||Slovakia||Qualification||W, 5-1||Gangneung Hockey Centre|
|Wed., Feb 21||Czech Republic||Quarterfinals||SOL, 2-3||Gangneung Hockey Centre|