PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The U.S. men’s hockey team did just about everything right for the first 40 minutes of its Olympic opener Wednesday night.
Team USA skated fast, forechecked aggressively, got rock-solid goaltending and scored twice.
Coach Tony Granato couldn’t have asked for more from his team after having only five days of practice together as a group.
Then the third period started and everything fell apart.
Slovenia made a hard push, the Americans played on their heels and a promising night ended in disappointment.
Slovenia’s Jan Mursak tied the game with 97 seconds left in regulation and his goalie pulled, then scored the game winner 38 seconds into overtime to hand Team USA a stunning 3-2 loss in the preliminary round at Kwandong Hockey Center.
“If you don’t play for 60 minutes, you put yourself in a position where you might not win,” Granato said.
That’s precisely what happened. Team USA wasted a solid 40 minutes before playing a sluggish third period. The Americans had repeated breakdowns defensively and Slovenia seized momentum by keeping the pressure on.
The game felt like two different games because of the dramatic shift in momentum.
“It’s an unfortunate outcome and it’s something we’re going to have to get past,” forward Troy Terry said. “But even after that I really like our team. You saw how fast we are and we can make plays. Our issue right now is mostly defensively. We’re all getting used to new systems and all that. But I have no doubt we’re going to get better from here.”
If nothing else, Team USA learned a value lesson. They can’t assume two strong periods will be enough.
Wild prospect Jordan Greenway gave his team a 2-0 lead with his first Olympic goal.
Granato showed a lot of trust in Greenway by having him center the top line with Ryan Stoa and captain Brian Gionta on his wings. Greenway finished with four shots and a goal.
Slovenia’s Blaz Gregorc cut the lead in half on a shot from the point through a pile-up of bodies in front of the net.
The Americans looked like they might survive in regulation but Mursak scored on a rebound during a final flurry.
“I didn’t see a shot on either of those first two goals,” U.S. goaltender Ryan Zapolski said.
Team USA held the edge in shots 36-25, but Slovenia capitalized on one more scoring chance.
“They came out hot (in the third period),” Greenway said. “They came out with more fire. We just didn’t find a way to finish the game.”
That’s the most disappointing part. The Americans did many positive things and had control of the game. For whatever reason, they lost their edge in the third period once Slovenia cranked up its intensity.
“They came at us,” Granato said. “The first two periods we played pretty darn good hockey. The third period we got a little bit on our heels, probably let off the gas a little bit. They took advantage and kept coming.”
Team USA will need to show better communication in their own end after defensive breakdowns created too many scoring chances. Slovenia had 11 shots in the third period and kept the heat on Zapolski.
“I thought our energy in the third wasn’t great,” Granato said. “Could have been a little fatigued mentally. No excuses. We played as hard as we could. The first two periods were great hockey. In the third period they were the better team and it was good enough for them to get a win.”