It was far from a guarantee, but the United States has found a way to back into the World Championship quarterfinals.
A 3-2 loss to Germany on Sunday — with a last second marker from the Germans to win it — put the U.S. in a position where it was “do or die,” as defenseman Jake McCabe put it, against Slovakia on Tuesday. Anything but a regulation loss would get them a berth.
It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t pretty.
The U.S. never held a lead against Germany, and it took until 2:53 of the third period against Slovakia for the U.S. finally hold a lead against either team. Nick Foligno put in an awkward goal off a Slovak defender to provide the lead. It was short lived, however, and the lead would never come back, as they ultimately lost in overtime to the Slovaks.
But it was good enough for a berth in the quarterfinals.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) May 17, 2016
The Best of Times; The Worst of Times
It was the best of times and the worst of times for Foligno, who, like Patrick Maroon, has struggled with the international crease rules. They’ve both had crease violation after crease violation, frequently killing U.S. momentum.
That was never more true than the third period of Tuesday’s contest. With the U.S. up 2-1, Auston Matthews set up Dylan Larkin for a goal that would have sunk Slovakia, and sent the U.S. into the quarterfinals with their heads held high. But Foligno, passing by the net, got a foot inside the crease just before the puck went in, causing yet another crease violation, negating the goal.
Moments later, Slovakia tied things up on a tip by Pavol Skalicky that looked a little too much like Korbinian Holzer’s lazy game-winner for Germany. A shot from the point, messy coverage, a screen in front of the goaltender.
After the Skalicky tip, there was still time for both sides, and the U.S. would get a huge opportunity. Andrej Sekera hit J.T. Compher late coming through the neutral zone and gave the U.S. just their second power play opportunity of the day. However, the U.S. continued to let opportunities slip through their fingers, a problem throughout the tournament. The best chance on that power play was for the Slovaks and required Keith Kinkaid to make a big save.
That big save was something the U.S. hasn’t had consistently. Unlike last year when Connor Hellebuyck was stalwart in the crease, the team has vacillated between Kinkaid and Mike Condon, who allowed three German goals on 14 shots last game.
The U.S. was lucky to get the game to overtime. They were outplayed for long stretches and were outshot 30-25. They took five minor penalties, providing chance after chance for Slovakia.
No One Won the Game
Ultimately, the game was bittersweet for the U.S. They lost the game, and they made it to overtime, in part, because of some poor coaching by Slovakia’s Zdeno Ciger.
There were questionable lineup decisions at times with Martin Reway — who has struggled in the tournament, but was clearly their best forward Tuesday — not getting key ice time and having his power play time seemingly capped. Even when a Slovak power play straddled periods, Reway and the top unit weren’t out there pushing the needle at both sides of the man advantage.
But the most egregious example of the coach not giving his team the opportunity to capitalize came in the waning moments of regulation. The game tied 2-2, an overtime win meaningless for Slovakia, he failed to get his goalie out of the net. Julius Hudacek, who was excellent all game, stood in his crease well beyond the point where he needed to be on the bench.
No, a tie game isn’t the normal situation where you’re yanking the goaltender, but it was the only play here, and Hudacek knew it.
With 90 seconds left in the game he stood in his crease holding his stick straight up in the air inching his way toward the bench, trying to get his coach’s attention. He couldn’t get a look.
The puck came back into the Slovak end. Hudacek didn’t put his stick down. He kept it up in the air, looking toward the bench as his team broke out of the zone. Still, the signal didn’t come.
With just 56 seconds left, Hudacek appears to have made the call himself and skated to the bench.
Poor line management and not getting the goaltender off as Slovakia created pressure in the closing moments made little of quality opportunities. That made it a game of missed opportunities on both sides, where each victory tasted sour.
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) May 17, 2016
Matt Hendricks celebrated at the end of regulation, knowing that the U.S. was moving on, but they didn’t show up for overtime. Marko Dano put in an overtime goal, his first of the tournament, by outmuscling Noah Hanifin, but his celebration said all there was to say.
No one won this game.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.