As the clock ticked toward the conclusion of overtime, coach Tony Granato thought, “I don’t like the idea of this.” His team was playing to delay the end. Most of the U.S. men’s hockey players had come from European teams, minor leagues or semiretirement. A win meant another day here, another day of USA across the chest and global relevance and the potential for adulation. A loss would launch them back to hockey’s hinterlands.
With those stakes, their sport would morph into a parlor game, and not a parlor game they were suited to win. The team produced by USA Hockey’s odd experiment skated hard, scrapped in corners and cared like hell. What it lacked was even a modicum of goal-finishing skill. Once the clock hit zeros, that would be the only skill measured. It would come down to a shootout.
“It’s hard to believe the way it was being played, and how hard those teams were competing, it was going to go to that,” Granato said.
The Czech Republic eliminated the United States from the Olympic tournament Wednesday afternoon in an overtime shootout, when all five Americans failed to score on Czech goalie Pavel Francouz. All game at half-full Gangneung Hockey Center, the United States had survived despite the Czechs’ frequent domination. All just-missed chances, the squandered power plays, the gigantic performance of goalie Ryan Zapolski — it all vanished in the cursed shootout.
“I feel empty,” said journeyman forward Jim Slater, whose shorthanded, second-period goal extended the game in the first place. Slater only played in three of the five games, and he had been included because he was, Granato said, “a worker.” Slater nearly had another crack at the dominant Russian team.
But the United States faltered utterly in the shootout. Francouz presented unique problems. He wore his glove on his right hand, not left, like most goalies. He charged out of the net with aggression. He was big and quick.
For the Americans, Chris Bourque went first. It may have been karmic misfire — his father, the legendary defenseman Ray, had lost a shootout to the Czechs in the Olympics 20 years prior. After a series of dekes, Bourque buried a shot in Francouz’s blocker.
Ryan Donato, the Harvard kid who led the U.S. team with five goals in the tournament, including the first Wednesday afternoon, fooled Francouz, but couldn’t stuff the puck inside the right post. Mark Arcobello shot a wrister from close range into Francouz’s pads. Troy Terry couldn’t slip a backhand past, able to induce Francouz to drop his shoulder, but unable to flip the puck over him. Bobby Butler went last, and when Francouz rebuffed him, the Czechs exulted.
Their one goal against Zapolski had been enough. Petr Koukal, the second Czech shooter, fooled Zapolski with a deke and slipped a puck between his legs. Zapolski had made four other saves in the shootout. But the American shooters, with the NHL players at home, could not muster one response. Where have you gone, T.J. Oshie?
The U.S. team could have won in regulation. With 2:42 left in the third period, forward Brian O’Neill beat Francouz with a wrister from the slot, but the puck pinged off the crossbar. “Even when I hit the bar,” O’Neill said, “I thought it was going in.”
With 80 seconds left, Czech Vojtek Mozik took a slashing penalty. But the U.S. power play had been a special kind of mess all day, and they never generated much heat on Francouz. Even playing 4-on-3 for 40 seconds to start overtime, the United States did not threaten. Unlike the Czechs, the Americans had to play Tuesday just to make the quarterfinals.
“Maybe our legs weren’t there,” Zapolski said. “You could kind of see, once they got in our zone we had a difficult time getting it out.”
The defeat robbed the United States of a semifinal rematch against the Olympic Athletes from Russia, who had beaten them, 4-0, in group play. The Americans left that game, despite the lopsided score, believing they had played Russia evenly.
“I wanted one more crack at them,” Granato said. “They’re an elite team. They might be as good as 20 out of the 30 teams playing in the NHL right now. That’s how good they are. But I thought how we played them, how we attacked them, I think we could have went back at them.”
Instead, the Americans gathered on their half of the rink. They pounded the ice with their sticks and waved to the crowd.
“If you were in our locker room, you wouldn’t know we’ve only been together for two weeks,” said Terry, a 20-year-old University of Denver forward who tallied five assists and piloted the U.S. attack. “When I look back, I’ll have a whole locker room full of brothers I didn’t have two weeks ago.”
Having grown close, they now will scatter in disparate directions. Captain Brian Gionta may try to hook on with an NHL team. O’Neill would head back to his Kontinental Hockey League team. Donato, a Boston Bruins prospect still playing at Harvard, planned on doing homework on the flight home.
Donato, Terry and Jordan Greenway may go on to lengthy careers, to Stanley Cup playoffs, maybe even all-star games. For the semi-retirees and minor leaguers and KHLers, two weeks spent in South Korea with USA across their chest will be the pinnacle.
“In 10 or 15 years, when we’re done playing, it’s something we’ll look back on as probably the best moment of our careers,” Zapolski said.
It had a chance to be so much better, to last just a little longer. They will go home without medal, but what hurts most is just going home at all.