US men’s hockey team out of Olympics after falling to Slovakia in penalty shootout
By Alan Blinder
Slovakia seemed out of time.
Its men’s hockey team had scored first in its quarterfinal against the United States at the Beijing Games on Wednesday. But even after surrendering the lead, it had kept the Americans, the Olympic tournament’s top seed, within a goal all afternoon.
But as Marek Hrivik patrolled near the American crease in the final minute, Slovakia still needed a goal. It arrived with about 44 seconds to play, sending the game to overtime and, eventually, to a shootout. There, Slovakia won, 3-2, to end the United States’ improbable ambition to capture an Olympic gold medal with its youngest team in decades.
“We played really well our first three games, and then this was kind of our first kind of bad game,” U.S. forward Ben Meyers said. “And now we’re done. I don’t really know what to say at this point.”
The United States did not arrive in Beijing as much of a favorite. Stripped of its star power by the NHL’s decision to withhold its players from the Olympic tournament, its men’s team was a last-minute and decidedly unglamorous assembly of college athletes and aging former pros. Only one member of the team had any previous Olympic experience. But it powered through the preliminary round, pummeling China, outdistancing Canada and surviving Germany to emerge as an unlikely gold medal contender.
The quarterfinal against Slovakia felt like a gateway game of sorts, a matchup against a team that had already lost twice but still had mettle, and a No. 9 ranking in the world. The Slovaks also had a deeply experienced coach, Craig Ramsay, and the talents of Juraj Slafkovsky, a 17-year-old forward who had captivated the tournament — and NHL scouts — with his scoring.
The Americans encountered his prowess early, after the puck raced around the edge of the rink and made its way to Slafkovsky. He took aim for his team’s sixth shot of the afternoon, and the goal horn sounded almost instantly.
A bit of slick passing by the Americans produced the goal by Nick Abruzzese that tied the score before the end of the period, though. And midway through the second period, a fast-rotating Sam Hentges slid the puck into the net to give the United States the lead.
There were chances to build on it; the one the Americans might regret most was their inability to produce a goal when presented with a two-man advantage early in the third period. “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,” coach David Quinn said.
Or just enough, at least.
As regulation time ticked away, Slovakia pulled its goalie to bolster its attack. Then Hrivik struck, maneuvering the puck just past Strauss Mann.
Overtime yielded no goals. The United States would, for the second straight Games, face a shootout in a quarterfinal game.
Three Americans failed to score. So did three Slovaks.
After Nathan Smith became the fourth victim of Patrik Rybar’s goaltending, Peter Cehlarik took the puck. A first-time Olympian, the 26-year-old forward charged down the ice. To Mann’s eye, he shifted the angle of his shot and launched the puck fast.
“I thought I was all over it,” Mann said, “and didn’t feel it and then didn’t hear the board.”
Slovakia had scored.
It was left to Andy Miele, the American captain, to save the United States at that point. But Rybar blocked his try — all five Americans failed to convert in the shootout — and his teammates poured off the bench, their earlier desperation now given way to celebration.
The Americans finished their third consecutive Olympics without a medal. Slovakia will meet Canada or Sweden in a semifinal on Friday.
“We played so hard,” said Ramsay, Slovakia’s venerable Canadian coach. “I think everyone felt we deserved it, and then it’s a matter of making it happen. The kids did it. They found a way.”
The American players had already trudged past by then, some laboring to avoid public tears. The tournament they had come to feel they could command — the tournament they had started to command — was over.
“It’s the quarterfinals of the Olympics,” Quinn said. “The other team is pretty damn good, too.”