The United States men's hockey team finished group play with a perfect 3-0 record, but the run of perfection came to a screeching halt early Wednesday morning. Slovakia, perhaps the most captivating story of the men's tournament thus far, took down the U.S. by a score of 3-2 in a shootout to advance to the men's semifinals at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Slovakia trailed the Americans 2-1 in the final minute of the game, but with just 43.7 seconds remaining in regulation, Slovak forward Marek Hrivik scored with his team's net empty to tie the game and ultimately force overtime.
Despite both the U.S. and Slovakia managing to generate numerous quality chances, neither team was able to score in the highly-eventful 10-minute OT period. Goals were just as hard to come by in the shootout, but when a puck finally did hit the back of the net, it came off the stick of Slovakia's Peter Cehlarik.
"You watch the goalie from previous games and I called his move in the warm-up. I tried it in the warm-up and I believed in it," said Cehlarik.
"Our goalie coach gave us pre-scouts and watched some clips on him, and I made (the) move."
Slovakia goaltender Patrik Rybar didn't allow a single goal in the shootout, stopping the Americans on all five of their attempts. Rybar finished the tilt with 33 saves on 35 U.S. shots.
Strangely, Matty Beniers, who was outstanding for the Americans throughout overtime, was never given an opportunity in the shootout.
The U.S. got off to a solid start against the Slovaks, outshooting them 5-0 in the early portion of the opening stanza. But not long after the period's midway point, Slovakian sensation Juraj Slafkovsky netted his tournament-leading fifth goal to break the ice. The 17-year-old was left completely unguarded in the slot and fired a laser past U.S. goaltender Strauss Mann to give his squad the early advantage.
Slafkovsky may be the youngest player competing in the men's tournament, but he already appears to be a budding star. He is eligible to be selected in the upcoming 2022 NHL Entry Draft in July, and after his strong showing at the Olympics, it's virtually a lock that he'll have his name called very early.
The Americans eventually responded with a goal of their own with just 45 seconds remaining in the first period. Nick Abruzzese potted his first marker of the tournament thanks to some gorgeous puck movement from Kenny Agostino, Steven Kampfer and Beniers on the rush. Better late in the period than never.
Despite the clear momentum shift at the end of the game's first 20 minutes, the middle period was far from ideal for the Americans. Slovakia outshot them 13-6 in the second frame and generated several quality scoring chances. Mann, however, was able to keep all of their opportunities out of the net. The Greenwich, Connecticut native was stellar all game long, stopping 34 of the 36 shots fired in his direction.
While the Slovaks had the clear advantage in the shots department during the middle stanza, Sam Hentges managed to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead just before the game's midway point for his first goal of the tournament.
Unfortunately, Hentges' tally ended up being the last goal the Americans would score at the 2022 Games. The U.S. had a golden opportunity to extend its lead in the third period with a 5-on-3 power play that lasted 1:22, but they failed to convert. In fact, the power play was completely ineffective all game, going scoreless in 6:38 of time on the advantage.
"We've got to do a better job at that," said Kampfer. "We could definitely have put our foot down on them but they killed it well and we didn't capitalize when we needed to."
"Hockey is a game of inches. They played well, they stuck to their identity and when it comes to a shootout there isn't really that much you can do."
For the second consecutive Olympics, the U.S. men will be watching the semifinals from home.
Slovakia was not considered a favorite to advance to the semifinals in the men's tournament by any means, but with NHL players not taking part in the Olympics, the playing field was evened out significantly. Now, the Slovaks and their teenage wunderkind are suddenly the top story of the tournament.
The Slovaks will play their semifinal game against the ROC Thursday night at 11:10 p.m. ET.