The U.S. came into Tuesday’s game against Slovakia with a chance to clinch first place in the Helsinki Group at the IIHF World Championship. Slovakia, meanwhile, had to win to make the quarterfinal round.
After Team USA’s improbable 5-0-0-1 start to the tournament, it seemed as though Slovakia posed a minor hurdle to overcome in winning the group. Considering that Slovakia lost to both Austria and Latvia and the fact that the U.S. had lost only to Russia prior to Tuesday seemed to give the Americans a decided advantage.
That apparently wasn’t the case. A bad start and a pair of disastrous goals allowed by Ben Bishop put the U.S. behind from essentially the puck drop and it would not recover.
The first goal came just 15 seconds into the game as Bishop hesitated when playing the puck, putting it right off Tomas Kopecky’s skate and right to Branko Radivojevic, who had an empty net. It’s really hard to understand what Bishop may have been thinking on that one.
The second one, well, that might be even more inexplicable.
The loss can’t be put solely on Bishop’s shoulders as the U.S. managed just one goal against a Slovakian team that gave up five (!) to Latvia. The U.S. did generate chances, but couldn’t seem to solve Rastislav Stana. So that’s not good either, but playing from behind the entire game on two goals that shouldn’t have happened changes the game. Slovakian players said after the game that the early goals gave them confidence that carried them through the game.
The only thing that makes the loss harder to swallow for the U.S. is the fact that John Gibson and his .984 save percentage over two starts was on the bench, while Bishop’s save percentage sank to .876. The NHL netminder has been given ample opportunity in the tournament making five of seven starts, but Bishop has yet to look his best in the tournament. Gibson meanwhile has two sound starts, which probably were each the best goaltending performances in the tournament for Team USA.
The loss isn’t crippling, obviously, as the U.S. was already assured a spot in the quarterfinals. The road to get to a medal game will be tougher now, however.
Because of the U.S. loss, Team USA goes from facing any one of Latvia, France or Germany (which all are now out of the medal round due to Slovakia’s regulation win), to meeting Russia (assuming Finland takes care of Latvia later Tuesday). Russia was able to outlast the Americans 5-3 earlier in the tournament and are one of the most overall skilled teams playing at the Worlds. It’s not a favorable draw.
The World Championship can be an unpredictable tournament. Who could’ve seen Switzerland going undefeated in a group with Canada, Sweden and the Czech Republic? Who could’ve seen Canada needing overtime to beat now-relegated Slovenia, a country that has 924 hockey players total? It’s just been that kind of tournament.
One thing that shouldn’t be unpredictable, however, is Joe Sacco’s decision for who starts in net the quarterfinal game. Gibson’s been the better of the two, has won on the international stage before and might allow his team to play with a bit more confidence after Bishop’s shaky Tuesday.