There isn’t much to savor from Team USA’s 3–2 overtime loss to Slovenia on the opening day of the Olympic men’s hockey preliminary round in PyeongChang, in which the Americans spoiled a 2–0 lead with under 15 minutes to play and then yielded a tap-in winner when all three defenders were caught puck-watching less than a minute into overtime. It’s a deflating start for a team that was already going to be hard-pressed to drum up widespread appeal back home without the help of NHL stars playing for their home countries. If you can’t hold off Slovenia, which is playing in just its second Olympics after a Cinderella run to the quarterfinals in Sochi and has sent only two players to the NHL, what chance do you stand against the tournament favorites?
But there’s little reason to panic just yet, for a few reasons.
First, no one gets bounced from the competition in the preliminary round—it just makes the road to medal contention down the line a bit tougher. The prelims comprise a three-game round robin among the four teams within Groups A, B and C. The winners of those three groups and the best second-place team earn an automatic spot in the quarterfinals, while the bottom eight teams are seeded No. 5-12 and meet in play-in games for the other four spots. Team USA could lose to Slovakia on Friday and Olympic Athletes from Russia on Saturday and still have a path to gold. But that path would require beating two superior teams on back-to-back days next week just to make the semifinals and earn head coach Tony Granato’s charges a chance to play for a medal.
It also helps that the U.S. wasn’t the only traditional Olympic power to start the tournament on the wrong skate. OAR, which arrived as gold-medal favorites with former NHL superstars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk on the roster, lost to Slovakia in the other half of Group B’s first day, 3–2 in regulation. Because its loss came in overtime, the U.S. sits one point above the Russians in the standings. The Americans play the current group leader Slovakia on Friday afternoon (airing live on CNBC on Thursday night stateside), and getting multiple points out of that would set up a Saturday rivalry renewal with the Russians that could swing both teams’ seeding dramatically.
There’s also the outside possibility that the Slovenians are here to stay as factors in international play. Led by Kings star Anze Kopitar four years ago, they won two games before yielding to silver medalist Sweden in the quarterfinals, and few competing nations were hurt less by the loss of NHL players from the talent pool. Jan Muršak, who played 46 NHL games over three seasons with the Red Wings from 2010 to ’13, had two goals on Wednesday, including the wide-open overtime winner.
Team USA now has a day off to soul-search before the last two games of group play on back-to-back days. The medal-round scenarios get less complicated the more they win.