Slovakia is on to the Olympic semi-finals for the first time since 2010 after a dramatic shootout victory over the USA in the quarters. Peter Cehlarik scored the lone goal in the fourth round of the shootout, approaching from the right side and using his left-handed shot to beat U.S. goalie Strauss Mann low to the far post.
“We had some pre-scout on the goalie from some previous games,” said Cehlarik, who was voted Best Forward at last year’s World Championship. “I tried this move in the warmup and I knew, if I had the chance, I would use it and I believed in it. I still had the (quarter-final) game from last year’s World Championship in my mind, where we lost to them, so this was revenge time.”
“I felt pretty good in the shootout,” said Mann, the 23-year-old Skelleftea AIK goalie. “I felt good on that shot too, I thought I read it pretty well, but it just kinda snuck under my blocker. It’s a game of inches. I know everyone in our locker room gave it their all. Props to them. They battled hard, they stuck with it, and they won.”
The Americans were looking for their first semi-final appearance since 2014, their first medal since 2010, and maybe a third gold, following the “miracles” of 1960 and 1980. After winning group A with a perfect record and earning the top seed headed into the knockout stage, the they entered the game on two days’ rest. Slovakia, the number-eight seed, were playing the second of back-to-back days and their fifth game in seven days following an impressive 4-0 win over ninth-seeded Germany in yesterday’s play-in round.
It was a fast, evenly played game, with lots of chances with Slovakia having a slight 36-35 edge in shots through 70 minutes but Mann and Patrik Rybar were each beaten only twice each.
It was a battle of two skating teams with lots of young talent on display, the USA was led by 19-year-old Seattle Kraken prospect Matty Beniers and a host of NCAA players against Slovakia’s 17-year-old wonderkids Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec.
Slafkovsky had a great chance to open the scoring just past the 11-minute mark but was denied by Mann. The American defence lost track of the big youngster, however, and he did score later on the same shift. Peter Ceresnak found Slafkovsky all alone in the slot, and he had all the time in the world to pick the top corner and fire a wrister that neither Mann nor any other goalie on the planet had a chance of stopping.
“I had a couple seconds, there was no one,” Slafkovsky said of his tournament-leading fifth goal. “I was talking with our goalie coach and he was telling me about the goalie and, yeah, it went in.”
The USA tied it up in the last minute of the period. Kenny Agostino led the rush from his own zone, and after a couple of quick one-touch passes from Steven Kampfer and Beniers, the puck was on the stick of Nick Abruzzese in front of the net, and he made a nice move and beat Rybar with a five-hole backhand.
Slovakia pressed hard in the second period and held a 13-6 advantage in shots, but it was the Americans who scored the lone goal, and it again was the result of a quick series of passes to finish off a rush. Just shy of the game’s 29-minute mark, Sam Hentges, with his back to the goalie, took a pass from Nick Perbix and, with Rybar guessing backhand, spun around on his forehand and found some open room just inside the post.
Less than three minutes later, Slovakia had its best chance of the period when Libor Hudacek got in behind the U.S. defence and took a pass, but was pressured from behind and was checked without getting a shot away.
The Slovaks were still very much in the game but started the third period shorthanded, and then took two more minor penalties in the first five minutes. Although the Americans didn’t score, they took precious time off the clock. With around 12 minutes to play, Beniers had a chance to give his team a bit of a cushion when he released a beautiful wrister from the high slot that hit the post and crossbar but stayed out. The play was reviewed at the next whistle but the no-goal ruling on the ice was upheld.
With time becoming a factor, the Slovaks resumed pressure, calling Mann back into action, and Slafkovsky nearly tied it with his second of the game but hit the crossbar. With six minutes to play, Samuel Knazko’s shot deflected just high.
A third Slovak penalty in the period, this one to Samuel Takac with 4:21 to go, took two more minutes off, but the Americans still couldn’t deliver the knock-out punch.
“We needed to do a better job at that,” US captain Andy Miele said of his team’s three third-period power plays. “We could have definitely put our foot down on them but they killed them well and we didn’t capitalize when we needed to.”
“We talk a lot of not taking penalties and, overall, I believe we do a good job of it, but that was really quite amazing,” said Slovak coach Craig Ramsay. “When it comes down to it, your goalie’s gotta be your best penalty killer and he was really good.”
Craig Ramsay called his timeout with 1:33 to play and pulled Rybar, and it worked. Captain Marek Hrivik backhanded in the rebound, getting his stick on the puck just past the outstretched glove of Mann, following a point shot from Michal Cajkovsky and an ensuing scramble.
“It’s been a little bit of a struggle for me personally to score goals in this tournament, but I’m just happy that it came at the right time,” Hrivik said after scoring his first of the tournament. “We had a bit of a rough start and we needed a few games to sort of find the chemistry in the team, and it’s worked out.”
“All game they were just throwing pucks to the net, creating traffic and trying to get tips,” said Mann. “It’s kind of their strategy and it paid off for them at the end. I wouldn’t say it was anyone’s fault. I wish maybe I could have got my glove on it, but that’s hockey. Bounces happen. It just sucks it happens at that point in the game.”
Chances were plenty during 10 minutes of 3-on-3 overtime, with the US outshooting Slovakia 7-4, but goals were not. Kristian Pospisil took the puck the puck hard to the net, fighting off two American defenders in the process, but was denied by Mann. The other way, Beniers led a 2-on-1 rush and elected to shoot, with Rybar getting a blocker on it. Then Beniers again fought his way in alone but ran out of room to get a quality shot. In the dying seconds, Matt Knies took the puck hard to the net and collided with Rybar, but the puck stayed out.
“This is gonna sting for a little while,” said Beniers, who had five official shots in the game, along with some other chances, but no goals. “It’s hard to put into words right now because you think you have an opportunity to do great things here but you come up a little bit short, and it’s disheartening.”
“We’ve been here before, in Vancouver,” said Cehlarik, referencing the 2010 Slovak team led by Pavol Demitra, Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa and Jaroslav Halak, which finished fourth, just shy of a medal. “I’m trying to stay calm here and prepare for the next game. The job’s not finished.”