GANGNEUNG, South Korea — This tossed-together United States men’s hockey team introduced itself to the world with a strut and a smile as it debuted on Olympic ice Wednesday night. Then it lost an edge, tripped and collapsed in a heap as a two-goal third period lead slipped away in a 3-2 overtime loss to Slovenia — a team not exactly known as a traditional Olympic power.
But these are no traditional Olympics. If they were, the U.S. team would not need to introduce itself at all. So few names on the team are familiar, so few of the stories known. Such is the nature of this tournament, which will not include NHL stars and will be less predictable because of it. The names are new, the teams are coalescing, and the character of it all will take time to develop. Perhaps this U.S. team, which showed flashes of peskiness, will not have enough time to develop into a challenger. It only has about a week.
Few teams were hurt by the decision to exclude NHL players from these Olympics like the United States, which would have been a consensus gold medal threat if it had its stars. While this U.S. team has more than 3,000 games of NHL experience — with 1,000 of those games belonging to 39-year-old veteran Brian Gionta — it did not pull the kind of high-profile former stars the Olympic Athletes from Russia did in Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.
Few teams experienced the same logistical challenges as this American team, which practiced together for a total of 6 hours 15 minutes before playing its first game Wednesday night. Gionta, the leader, was delayed by travel and missed the first practice. As the Americans’ defense devolved from solid early to decidedly porous late, as the Slovenians accumulated chance after chance after impossibly good chance in their third-period rally, the Americans looked tired, uncomfortable or perhaps a bit of both.
“I thought our energy in the third wasn’t great. Twenty-four guys playing their first Olympic game, the hype, the long day. You use a lot of energy,” Coach Tony Granato said. “It could’ve been a little fatigue just set in mentally because of the way that the day was. But no excuses.”
The tying goal came on an unfortunate rebound with 1:37 left in regulation — though, in fairness, the onslaught of Slovenian chances probably should have resulted in a goal far sooner. Slovenia then scored 38 seconds into the three-on-three sudden-death overtime, which the U.S. couldn’t have drilled much at all.
One game, after six practices, would normally be far too small of a sample to analyze and draw conclusions. But the Americans don’t have the luxury of growing in time. They have two more pool-play games to go, and they could lose all three of them and still move to the elimination rounds. These games determine seeding.
“We were extremely well prepared,” said Brian O’Neill, who scored the Americans’ first goal of the tournament when he pounced on a loose puck late in the first period.
“Our coaching staff did an unbelievable job getting us to this point. We did a lot of video prior to the Olympics. I don’t think it was that,” O’Neill said. “I just think we need to learn from what we did wrong in the third period, but we did a lot of things right in the first two periods that we need to focus on and definitely learn from as well.”
If one were to use those first 40 minutes as evidence, one might conclude the Americans could be a fiery team offensively. O’Neill and similarly speedy playmakers Mark Arcobello and Broc Little set up chances. Forward Jordan Greenway from Boston University scored his first Olympic goal in the second period, becoming the first African American to score in an Olympic game, and fellow collegiate forward Troy Terry of the University of Denver earned multiple good looks. The offense generated chances. The puck moved. And, as O’Neill explained, the Americans look like they can skate with anyone.
But defensively, they grew sluggish and out of sync, looking saggy in their zone and a step slow out of it as the third period unfolded. They never even got a chance to look out of whack in overtime, as the Slovenians sent them home after a few back-and-forths. A lack of preparation would explain breakdowns such as those, as players often need time to settle in to their systems. Fatigue could explain it, too.
“We’ve got to find a way to finish it,” said Gionta, the team captain. “We played a great two periods, established everything we wanted to do, controlled the game the way we wanted to. We just didn’t do it for a full three periods.”
Gionta and O’Neill embody the wide-ranging makeup of this roster. Gionta took on this Olympic challenge as a cap to his career. O’Neill admitted that he, like many of his teammates who left professional teams in Europe, is here largely because something didn’t go right along the way. For him, it wasn’t anything specific — just a lack of NHL opportunities after too many years of toil.
Greenway is another animal, one of three collegiate up-and-comers who hearken memories of a U.S. men’s hockey team composed mostly of precisely those types. The comparisons to 1980 and the “Miracle on Ice” team might not be fair, but they are inevitable. Embrace them for a moment, because it’s too early to declare them irrelevant just yet.
No one expected that team, built on the backs of unheralded amateurs, to beat the mighty Soviets. No one expects this team, built on the backs of unheralded amateurs, to beat the consensus favorite Olympic Athletes from Russia — which surprised the field by losing its opener Wednesday night, too.
But if the 1980 team was made of youthful dreamers, this one is composed more by realists fighting for their hockey lives, or veterans hoping for a send-off. If ignorance facilitated magic in the first case, perhaps the fight that flows when opportunities ebb can foster it in this one. Nothing is out of reach. But this unorthodox conglomerate, so in need of introduction, did not provide a convincing one Wednesday night.