2018 Olympics: USA falls to Slovenia — Recap, analysis, stray thoughts

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If you’re an American, you were probably like me sitting there with your mouth agape as Jan Mursak was left all alone in front and sent a shot past Ryan Zapolski to give Slovenia a shocking 3-2 overtime win over the United States. Yeah, not an ideal way to start the Olympics. Not an ideal result at any point.

What’s so unfortunate about the game is that the U.S. was in control. They were the better team by far through 40 minutes. Their first period took me by complete surprise.

USACrestHere is a team that had never played a game together, only had six practices including a morning skate (and one where not everyone was there due to flight delays) and they were rolling. Slovenia may not strike fear into the hearts of more traditional hockey power, but this is a team that has been together for a while and has a lot of guys with Olympic experience. It’s their very best players minus Anze Kopitar (which is a huge minus).

Team USA had jump, they had such tremendous speed and they were on every puck. Slovenia didn’t even have time to come up for air, basically. It was a really strong effort and things were clicking. Out to a 2-0 lead, it looked like they were in control completely. And then…. they just kept lagging, fading and then disaster.

The first game of a tournament is always tough. That’s true at any level of international hockey, but especially so when you’re as unfamiliar with your teammates as this group is. It’s also a game big on emotions and adrenaline due to the excitement level. So they came out flying and perhaps it was an issue of peaking too soon. All of that adrenaline and emotion that they started to fade and so did their legs. The U.S. seemed to look tired. They started making mistakes with the puck. And suddenly the ice was tilted the other way.

They were not outright dominated in the third period, but they allowed Slovenia some life and also gave them the net-front. The first goal came off of a great shot and excellent traffic in front. The second goal is probably the unforgivable one. Letting Jan Mursak stand alone on the doorstep at even strength was pretty brutal. He was their best player all game, threatening all game and he couldn’t have had an easier look. And actually, the Slovenians had two players alone in front. It was a complete misfire defensively for USA.

Then it goes to 3-on-3 overtime and that’s as good as a coin flip no matter who is on your roster with all that ice. The U.S. got the first possession, wasted it and the game was over after that. I have a hard time believing USA spent a ton of time on 3-on-3 in practice given all the other things they had to cover with the six they had. That’s not to excuse the way things played out because these guys are professionals, but that’s one where everyone has to be on the same page. Tough to get there in this situation.

Slovenia worked the puck around and all three USA players got lost out there and once again gave Mursak a free look, which he buried.

So that leads me to this: For as bad as that loss appears on paper, and it does look awfully bad seeing as the tournament only gets harder from here, it’s certainly not the end for this U.S. team. There were enough positives in the first 40 minutes of the game where I actually thought they played better than I was expecting them to. That’s aside from the third period of course.

So here are the things I’m taking away from this game aside from lamenting the lost two points in the final minutes…

USA has to manage its game better. They came out so hard and so fast that they just couldn’t keep it up for 60 minutes. They out-shot Slovenia 10-3 in the first period, then gave up nine shots in the second. They still were keeping Slovenia’s chances limited even though more got through. Zapolski was tested mostly from outside. Then the third is when they got super leaky.

I don’t think they’d be able to dial it back a lot and still be successful against better teams, but you take as many of those elements as you can and find a style you can sustain for 60 minutes. I think they have enough ability to be able to do that. What they don’t have is time. There can’t be a lot of experimentation as they’ve only got two more games before it comes down to the elimination rounds.

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The line of Ryan Donato, Troy Terry and Mark Arcobello was excellent for most of the game. Putting the two college kids with one of the top scorers in Switzerland has worked out well. Terry and Donato had a lot of the higher-skill plays that you expect top prospects to be able to make. They drew penalties, they created chances and they were able to keep Slovenia on their heels more successfully than any other U.S. line. That said, both Terry and Donato got caught a few times trying to do too much. They were guilty of a few turnovers that you’d rather not see just because they hung onto the puck too long. I don’t know that you give them too much grief for that though because they really had a positive impact on the game.

Ryan Zapolski certainly doesn’t deserve much, if any, blame for today. The three goals Slovenia scored weren’t on the goalie. The first was a shot through heavy traffic that found a hole. Then the second two were Mursak by himself from close range. You just have to tip your cap. Zapolski had some shaky moments out there, but overall he played solidly with 22 saves in the game. I didn’t see anything that will cause him to lose his job as the No. 1.

Brian O’Neill had a strong game. Involved in both U.S. goals, O’Neill was a factor in a lot of ways in the game against Slovenia. He scored the first one on a well-placed shot and assisted on Jordan Greenway’s goal by kicking the puck free while fighting off a check. He just played hard the whole game, too. I certainly wouldn’t see him and Broc Little get a couple of extra minutes in the next game. I wonder if the two of them might be a fit playing with Greenway a little more as they spent most of the game with Garret Roe.

Defense had its ups and downs. I thought Matt Gilroy played well overall, but he was on the ice at the end of the game when Mursak tied it. It was one bad play amid many other good ones for the former Hobey Baker winner and it proved costly. He’s clearly USA’s No. 1 D though, playing over 26 minutes against Slovenia. Overall I think he’ll be fine. Noah Welch had that incredible goal-saving block in the first period, but that chance was partially created by one of his turnovers and there were a few rough ones in this game from him. He was kind of emblematic o the team in that he had his share of great and poor plays.

Bobby Sanguinetti and Ryan Gunderson were the pair on the ice for the game-tying goal (FYI, the score sheet has this wrong), but I don’t think the blame should specifically be on them as all five players got a little lost out there. James Wisniewski played 2:51 today as it appears he is here strictly for power play duties.

They got leaky at the end, but the forwards were also pretty poor in the neutral zone in the third period. There were a lot of bad turnovers and it put USA’s defense on its heels. Early in the game, they were doing a good job of getting pucks up to the speedy forwards and the forwards were managing the puck well on entries and through the neutral zone. Big difference in the third.

I’ll be interested to see if Will Borgen gets in against Slovakia after being scratched today. He’s got good mobility and is a smart defender. Stakes are a little higher now, though.

I’d be more worried if… The U.S. didn’t create a lot of chances. With 36 shots on goal, they created a lot of quality chances. Greenway, Donato, O’Neill and some others were doing very well in getting to the middle of the ice. Slovenian goalie Gasper Kroselj had a much better game than he is being given credit for. There were some big saves off of deflections and with traffic in front that were not easy. If there were NHL players shooting, you’d probably expect a few more of those to go in. That said, I thought it would be very difficult for the U.S. to generate a lot of good chances even against Slovenia. I think teams have to work a lot harder for their chances on the big ice and the U.S. was doing that for much of the game.

So yeah, it’s a loss to Slovenia. It doesn’t look great. It’s not great. I’ve been saying since the summer that you have to manage your expectations with this team. The lack of a pre-tournament exhibition schedule, the inability to play together as a team until today, that is no small thing to overcome. But I think we learned that there are some really good players on this roster and that the U.S. has the talent and speed to compete. We just have to see if they have enough time to put it all together. With Slovakia beating Russia, I think it only further proves that these Olympics are wide open.

The U.S. is going to the qualification round no matter what. So long as they continually improve and start peaking in the elimination round, there’s always a chance. They remain a medal longshot, but this loss does not end those hopes outright.

Now, I don’t want you to think all of this silver-lining stuff from your ol’ pal CP means you can’t be mad about losing to Slovenia. It’s the natural setting for any international hockey fan, and please feel free to rage on. There’s still quite a bit of hockey left and I think there are some things to like about this U.S. team out the gate. Once you get over that they’re not NHL players and just watch the game without the filter of “this would be better with the NHL” it becomes a pretty decent product. I thought the early goings were especially entertaining due to the speed and flow of the game.

Now we have to see how the U.S. responds. This is a gut-punch of the highest order because of how it happened more than because of the quality of the opponent. The Slovakians are going to be better than Slovenia, but if this U.S. team has some push-back, they’re going to have a chance. That next game is going to tell us an awful lot about where this team is and where it might actually be able to go after Wednesday’s disappointment.

So, the blog is back for a little bit when I can write. I’m actually at the U18 Five Nations this week in Plymouth, Michigan, so that is my priority for coverage. But I’m going to try to do a little something after each U.S. men’s game. Just think of the blog as kind of like the McRib. It’s here for a limited time only and could come back again without warning (again).

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in Olympics, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to 2018 Olympics: USA falls to Slovenia — Recap, analysis, stray thoughts

  1. Sherrie says:

    OK, I’ll confess. Im a long time STH of the OHL Saginaw Spirit. Jan Mursak played for the Spirit—probably one of the top 3 players they ever had—and I loved seeing him have a great game.

    That said, the US showed some real positives. They were much quicker than I expected, and (with the exceptions you noted) handled the puck well. Leaving Mursak alone—twice—was pretty unbelievable, and destroyed all the good things they did.

    The game against OAR will be pretty interesting, since they suffered an even bigger upset. Thanks for your coverage!!!

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