GANGNEUNG, South Korea – For two full periods, the U.S. men’s hockey team played with the upper hand. But in the end, Slovenia’s lone player with NHL experience, captain Jan Mursak, demonstrated his experience and took advantage of a young U.S. squad.
After Slovenia pulled goalie Gasper Kroselj late in the third period to try to tie the game, Mursak scored with 1 minute, 37 seconds left, ultimately sending the game to four-on-four overtime. Thirty-eight seconds into the overtime, Mursak netted the game-winner as Slovenia pulled off a stunning 3-2 comeback win over the United States.
“I thought we played two great periods,” said U.S. coach Tony Granato. “We were on our heels in the third at times and they took advantage. Give them credit. All-in-all, I liked the way we played.”
The U.S. did look strong in the first two periods, outshooting Slovenia 11-3 in the first and 13-9 in the second.
The only aspect that could have gone better for Yardley native Brian O’Neill’s Olympic hockey debut would have been a win. In the first period, the forward received a perfect feed from Garrett Roe behind the goal to net the puck and give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. He also notched an assist giving the Jokerit player – part of the Kontinental Hockey League – two points on the night.
“I think it’s definitely one of the highlights of my hockey career,” O’Neill said of his first Olympic goal. “It’s a really good feeling, hard to really explain, actually. Definitely something that I’ll remember forever.”
Ryan Gunderson, the defenseman from Bensalem, played 17:50 but didn’t have a huge impact on the game.
While Slovenia had just three shots on goal in the first period, a bad giveaway by Noah Welch forced U.S. goalie Ryan Zapolski into a compromising position. Welch redeemed himself by somehow extending his body for a dramatic diving save to keep the 1-0 lead.
In the second, Slovenia was so occupied with Troy Terry in front of the net that Jordan Greenway snuck in and notched his first Olympic goal as well.
U.S. captain Brian Gionta said the team just needs to learn to finish games.
“We played a great first two periods, established everything that we wanted to do, controlling the game the way we wanted to,” Gionta said. “We just didn’t do it for a full three periods.”
Slovenia came to life in the third period. Blaz Gregorc beat Zapolski with a shot from the right faceoff dot to cut the U.S. lead to 2-1.
Zapolski would finish with 22 saves on 25 shots.
Many questions have arisen on how the NHL-less Olympics will pan out. O’Neill says that while there is a little bit of pressure to perform well, he’s just happy for the opportunity.
“I want to see the NHL’s best perform on a stage like this, but I think we were given a unique opportunity and feel privileged and fortunate and we’re definitely going to try to take advantage of this opportunity,” O’Neill said.
At the very least, the U.S. earned a point in the overtime loss. Granato said fatigue and the hype of the game might have been a little too much for some of his players.
“It could’ve been a little fatigue just set in mentally because of the way that the day was,” Granato said. “They were the better team in the third and it was good enough for them to get the win.”
Next up, the U.S. faces Slovakia in the second preliminary-round matchup on Friday before taking on Athletes of Russia on Saturday.