Noah Welch (5), of the United States, defends against Miha Verlic (91), of Slovenia, during the first period of the preliminary round of the men's hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Wednesday. Photo: AP
olympics

U.S., Russians lose in men's ice hockey openers

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By STEPHEN WHYNO

Five practices were supposed to prepare the Americans for this, and they knew at the second intermission Slovenia was going to come out punching.

The preparation and the knowledge were not enough to fend off the fatigue as the United States blew a two-goal lead and lost a 3-2 stunner in overtime Wednesday night in the Olympic opener for both teams. Slovenia captain Jan Mursak scored the tying goal with 1:37 left in regulation and the winner 38 seconds into overtime.

Long before that, the U.S. started letting the game slip away with mistakes all over the ice.

"We started turning the puck over in our zone and they were getting chances and that led to some momentum for them," said goaltender Ryan Zapolski, who allowed three goals on 25 shots. "We can't give up those chances that we were giving up out of nothing there in the third. That really kills your momentum. And they scored a goal off one of them and from that point we were kind of on our heels."

Brian O'Neill and Jordan Greenway, who became the first African-American hockey player for the U.S. at an Olympics, scored to build the 2-0 lead in a dominant showing, and the shots were 24-12 after two periods. Coach Tony Granato pointed out that Slovenia probably should have been the more tired team from playing so much in its defensive zone, but there was none of that from a group that has only one player — Mursak — with NHL experience.

In the game because of goalie Gasper Kroselj, who stopped 34 of 36 shots, Slovenia came to life when Jan Urbas scored 5:37 into the third period. With fans chanting "SLO-VE-NI-A," the perennial underdogs started pouring it on.

"We outskated them in the third, especially, and had more energy," said Mursak, who spent time with the Detroit Red Wings. "After we scored that first goal, I think we really got that extra energy and the feeling that can score some more."

After flashing the breakneck speed of forward Garrett Roe on O'Neill's goal and the quick reaction of Greenway on his rebound tally, the U.S. suddenly looked gassed. Granato wondered if 21 players dressing in their first Olympic game combined with the hype and long day before a late start took a toll on his team, which hadn't played together much.

"Our energy in the third wasn't great," Granato said. "It could've been a little fatigue just set in mentally because of the way that the day was. But no excuses. ... They were the better team in the third and it was good enough for them to get the win.

The U.S. at least picked up a point by getting to overtime, while the Russians lost 3-2 in regulation to Slovakia across town at Gangneung Hockey Centre. After each team's first game, Slovakia is atop Group B, followed by Slovenia, the U.S. and the Russians.

No one expected this kind of showing from Slovenia, which looked overmatched in the first two periods and is mostly known for having a star in Los Angeles Kings captain Anze Kopitar. There was no Kopitar — this is the first Olympics since 1994 without NHL players — but still the same pluck and no-quit attitude that helped the Slovenians beat rival Slovakia in Sochi for one of the biggest victories in national history.

Slovenia added another by upsetting the U.S. and gets the Russians next.

"I'm proud of my guys," Mursak said. "I'm proud of the team and hopefully we can start looking to the next game and surprise somebody else."

The Americans didn't expect to be surprised by much but go back to the drawing board to prepare to face Slovakia on Friday.

"We'll learn from this," O'Neill said. "We haven't played a whole lot of hockey as a team together. So it's good for us to learn from that third period."

Slovakia 3, Russia 2

The latest iteration of the Russian Red Machine started its Olympic hockey tournament against Slovakia on Wednesday and lost 3-2.

The Russians gave up a two-goal lead as defensive errors allowed Slovakia to end the first period tied at 2-2. Peter Ceresnak then scored the game-winner with a slapshot in the third.

"I got a perfect pass from Martin Hasek and then I just closed my eyes shut and it finished in the goal," Ceresnak said.

On a night when Slovenia beat the United States 3-2 in overtime, an Olympic tournament without NHL players offers a chance for smaller nations to shine.

And they are already making a go at it.

"This is a tournament of big surprises," said Ceresnak, who plays in the Czech league. "Every team here can beat every other team."

Russia will next play Slovenia on Friday, while Slovakia takes on the United States on the same day.

Before the tournament, the Russians were considered to be the gold-medal favorites in the first Olympics since 1994 without NHL players. However, they were also the favorites on home ice in Sochi four years ago, only to struggle under the pressure before losing to Finland in the quarterfinals.

This time around, they are playing under the name "Olympic Athletes from Russia" as part of the country's punishment from the International Olympic Committee for doping at the 2014 Sochi Games. If they win the gold medal, the Olympic anthem will play.

Still, the red and white jerseys of the OAR team are a powerful reminder of Russian and Soviet hockey heritage. And failing to beat Slovakia at the Olympics is a reminder of more recent problems.

Russian teams have now played Slovakia in four consecutive Olympic tournaments, losing three of those and winning in 2014 in a shootout.

The Russians scored twice in the first five minutes at the Gangneung Hockey Center, with Nikolai Prokhorkin scoring off an assist from Vladislav Gavrikov to take the early lead. Minnesota Wild prospect Kirill Kaprizov followed up with another, hitting the puck in mid-air past Slovakia goaltender Branislav Konrad.

Slovakia recorded only four shots in the first period, but scored on two of them just before the intermission.

Peter Olvecky first beat Russian goalie Vasily Koshechkin with a wrist shot. Then Martin Bakos, who had been checked into the Russian bench minutes before, made it 2-2 on a breakaway after opposing defenseman Nikita Nesterov lost the puck at the blue line.

"Everyone started attacking more and they seem to have forgotten about defense," said Pavel Datsyuk, the captain of the Russian team.

The Russians tried to respond after Ceresnak's goal but couldn't take advantage of two power plays in the final 10 minutes.

There are no flags on the OAR jerseys, but the stands were full of Russian tricolors and South Korean locals lined up to pose for photos with one supporter in a bear costume.

Chants of "Forward Russia" and "Victory" echoed around the arena, which was barely half-full with large areas of empty seats behind both goals.

© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.


2 Comments
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I'm actually a bit worried about 'Russia' losing in the ice hockey (was there actually a ban on Russia?).

In the last Olympics when they couldn't win, they took their anger out by cheating in other sports, like figure skating.

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Yeah, it's really hard to win without doping. This is the first fair Olympics in a very long time.

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