BEIJING – This was it: as close as many of them will get to one of hockey’s big championships, and as close as the United States will get to the kind of Olympic hockey story it always wants to tell. The Americans were one minute away from beating Slovakia, 2–1, to move into the semifinal round, and they can all tell you what happened after that, but the why gets murky.
Here is how it unfolded: Slovakia pulled its goalie. Captain Marek Hrivik scored with 43.7 seconds left to tie it. The teams went to overtime, 10 minutes with three skaters each, which felt like sprinting along the edge of a cliff. The action was fast, the players were exhausted, and with so much room on the ice, every change felt fraught. Somehow, neither team scored. They went to a shootout, and the first four shots for either side were stopped, until Slovakia’s Peter Cehlárik approached the American goalie and. . .
“It was a good move by him — he changed the angle there a little bit and then got a quick release off,” Mann said. “I honestly thought I read it pretty well. I thought I was all over it. ”
His hands told him otherwise: He felt nothing. His ears were an unwanted second source: He didn’t hear the puck hit the board behind him. Cehlárik had scored. American captain Andy Miele had a shot to extend the shootout, but he was stuffed, and suddenly the Americans were done with the what and onto the why.
COVID-19 had knocked the NHL out of the Olympics. Of course, the pandemic is a perpetual plan-wrecker, but the league said it had already canceled too many of its own games. That took some juice out of this tournament, but it also shook up the hierarchy. Until Wednesday, the US might have had the best team here, and when has that ever been the case? The US has won gold twice: In Squaw Valley in 1960, which was a surprise, and in Lake Placid in 1980, which was such a surprise that we still can’t shut up about it. In the era of NHL players participating, Canada was always the favorite; when the US won silver in 2002 and ’10, it lost to Canada both times.
This US team, mostly college stars with vets sprinkled in, had won all three of its games in group play, including a 4–2 win over Canada. For three straight games, including this one, the Americans’ opponent scored the first goal, but each time, the US stayed poised and took the lead.
At some point against Slovakia, the lack of experience or finishing skill cost the Americans. Strauss basically said hockey happened: A break there, a bounce there. Fair. But the US had ample power play opportunities, including a 5-on-3 in the third period, and failed to score.
“We weren’t thinking about it at the time because we were still winning,” forward Ben Meyers said of the 5-on-3. “But I guess if we capitalize there, it maybe puts the game out of reach.”
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Hrivik’s tying goal forced overtime and changed the game — not just the score, but the dynamic. The Americans did not have a full intermission to emotionally recover. They had a quick break and then the frenetic 10-minute 3-on-3 period.
“I don’t think it was that hard,” forward Matty Beniers insisted. “I think we have a really skilled team. We’re made for 3-on-3 hockey. We kind of dominated. Their goalkeeper made some huge saves. ”
The US did have a 7–4 lead in shots in overtime. But they couldn’t score. Then they got shut out in the shootout, and it would be nice to say Slovakian goalie Patrik Rybár won the game for his team, but it wouldn’t be honest. The US had one feeble scoring attempt after another. It looked like the Americans were suddenly out of gas, ideas, or both.
Hockey is a game of constant action, which makes the endings feel especially sudden. The US was 44 seconds away from having two more games: A semi, and then one for a medal, either gold or bronze.
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These Olympics have not captured the American imagination like most do, for a variety of reasons, but there would have been an opening for this hockey team. The Americans were more like that 1980 team than any team in an NHL-infused Olympics could ever be. Their two most intriguing potential opponents, Russia and Canada, were still lurking in the bracket. The US had already shown it could beat Canada. Russia, with its state-sponsored doping scandal and potential invasion of Ukraine, has regained Olympic evil-empire status.
Instead, there were two Slovakian goals, a slew of missed American chances and no more hockey for the US men to play. They had a good run, but as forward Kenny Agostino said, “It will be something I appreciate the further I get from today.” Slovakia 3, US 2, and all that’s left now is why, why, why.
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