The United States’ improbable, unbeaten run through the Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament came to a devastating halt at the quarter-final stage on Wednesday with a 3-2 penalty shootout defeat to Slovakia.
The youngest US men’s Olympic team in decades appeared bound for the semi-finals after coming from behind for a third straight contest to lead 2-1 with under a minute remaining. But Slovakian captain Marek Hrivic scored a game-tying goal with 43.7 seconds left and Peter Cehlarik broke a stalemate in the decisive shootout that followed a scoreless overtime period.
Slovakian goaltender Patrik Rybar, who made 33 saves in the match, was mobbed by his teammates in front of the goal after turning away Andy Miele’s final attempt in the shootout as the US team looked on in stunned silence.
“It’s the medal round and you’re going to get every team’s best,” said Miele, the USA captain who fought through tears while fielding questions in the mixed zone. “They put up a lot of shots and he made a lot of big saves. We didn’t find a way to score more goals. It just comes down to that.”
The Americans arrived in Beijing with the youngest roster in the 12-team tournament, a group including 15 college students and five teenagers hastily assembled after the NHL withdrew from Olympic participation in December due to the spread of the Omicron variant, and a team who didn’t skate together until a few weeks ago.
But the US team upended expectations by winning all three of their preliminary-round games to earn top seeding in the quarter-finals, stirring up the echoes of the ragtag group of fuzzy-faced amateurs who stormed through the Olympic tournament in 1980, upsetting the heavily favoured Soviet Union along the way in the storied Miracle on Ice.
Team USA’s top seeding earned them an extra day of rest over Slovakia, who took the ice for Wednesday’s quarter-final less than 24 hours after Tuesday’s qualification play-off win over Germany. It appeared to show in the early stages as the Americans got off to a flying start, forechecking with high intensity and rattling off the first five shots on goal.
But it was Slovakia’s Juraj Slafkovsky who drew first blood midway through the opening frame, drifting into the slot and firing a left-handed missile into the back of the net for his fifth goal of the tournament.
Undeterred after having conceded the opening goal in their previous two wins against Canada and Germany, the US equalized with less than a minute to go in the opening period when Harvard junior Nick Abruzzese made a slick move in front of the goal before poking it through Rybar’s legs. The Americans then nosed ahead midway through the second period when the St Cloud State University senior Sam Hentges opened his Olympic account.
“They played outstanding this entire tournament,” USA defenseman and alternate captain Steven Kampfer said of the college players who made up more than half of the team’s roster. “These young guys have a great future ahead of them and I think they know that. They’ve just got to continue to work hard but the sky is the limit for these kids and that was evident in this tournament as it went on.”
The American lead stood until the final minute when Hrivic, formerly of the NHL’s New York Rangers and Calgary Flames, knocked a loose puck past USA goalie Strauss Mann with Slovakia staring down elimination and their goaltender off the ice, leaving Team USA to rue to their failure to cash in on three power-play opportunities in the third period, one of them a five-on-three advantage.
“That was really tough,” Kampfer said. “I thought we did a good job until that point, we did a good job defending. We knew that they were finding a lot of pucks to the net at the end and there’s one that gets free and they get a stick on it. They tie the game and got a little momentum.”
The US were forced to regroup quickly for the 10–minute sudden-death overtime period where both sides exchanged scoring chances but neither could break through. Only Cehlarik managed to find the back of the net in the best-of-five shootout as Rybar turned away all five American attempts.
“We couldn’t find a way to get it by him,” Miele said. “He’s an aggressive goalie and he did well tonight.”
University of Minnesota forward Ben Meyers added: “We played really well in our first three games and this is our first bad game. Now we are done. I have no complaints at all about anything. I’m just disappointed that we lost this time.”
Mann, the 23-year-old University of Michigan product who finished with 34 saves in the losing effort, was among several US players both overcome by emotion after the shock defeat but grateful for the unexpected journey.
“It was amazing,” Mann said. “It is probably the biggest honour of my life to represent our country, play on the Olympic stage and just be a part of something bigger than hockey. To get to know a lot of great guys, fill those relationships that will last a lifetime and help unite the country a little bit.”
Sweden, who knocked out a Canada side also shorn of its NHL players, Finland and the Russian Olympic Commitee join Slovakia in the semi-finals.