In the quarter-final, the Americans will face the Czech Republic, which topped Group A.
Marko Dano’s overtime winner was anticlimactic and irrelevant in the standings. Since the U.S. came in with nine points to Slovakia’s six, the Slovaks needed a regulation-time win to get to the next round, but couldn’t pull it off.
“We were trying to take the game to them,” said the U.S.’s Frank Vatrano. “They needed that regulation win to get in. We came in and tried to play good defense and get some goals when we needed them. We are looking forward to heading into the next round.”
Tuesday’s early game was a cautious, hard-working affair that went down to the wire. These two teams had both underachieved in round-robin play, and there was nervousness in the air at Yubileiny.
“We both knew something was on the line, and the game was competitive,” said U.S. coach John Hynes. “We are glad to have the opportunity to move on.”
The U.S. avoided missing the quarter-finals for the first time since 2010. They earned bronze at two out of the last three Worlds (2013, 2015). The U.S. has not won gold at a World Championship tournament since 1933.
After the heartbreak of losing to Germany on Korbinian Holzer’s last-minute goal, the U.S. showed good mental toughness by bouncing back to salvage its hopes here.
“Losing to Germany was frustrating, but the good thing about this tournament, though, is that you play every odd day and can still make it in after losing a couple of games,” said Connor Murphy.
The Slovaks failed to capture their first quarter-final berth since 2013, when they finished eighth. Their last medal was 2012’s silver. It’s a far cry from the glory days of the early 2000’s with Miroslav Satan and Peter Bondra.
“We have a young team and so many problems with discipline and playing 60 minutes,” said Slovak coach Zdeno Ciger. “They really wanted to win and today they showed what they can do. We want to build this for the future, and we saw some of the future of this team out there today.”
In regulation, Brock Nelson and Nick Foligno scored for the Americans. Christian Jaros and Pavel Skalicky tallied for the Slovaks.
Hynes put Keith Kinkaid in net for this crucial game after Mike Condon struggled with 11 saves on 14 shots in the preceding 3-2 loss to Germany. Ciger stuck with starter Julius Hudacek. Shots on goal in this game favored Slovakia 30-25.
Early on, the Americans set a physical tone. Twice the Slovak trainer came out to check on players that were shaken up: Slovakia’s Peter Lusnak took a big Murphy hit at the American bench, and Jake McCabe hammered Peter Cehlarik with an open-ice check.
At the five-minute mark, Hudacek was caught roaming out of his net and dived frantically to make the save when Vince Hinostroza had a glorious chance in front.
Slovakia drew first blood with 1:21 left in the first period. Jaros took a pass from Marek Viedensky in the right faceoff circle and whipped a wrister past Kinkaid. That got the Slovak fans behind their team’s bench hopping up and down and singing.
At 3:26 of the second period, Viedensky went down awkwardly in the corner to Kinkaid’s left when he was tripped up by Brock Nelson. He hobbled off to the dressing room while Slovakia went to the power play, mounting great pressure but failing to capitalize. Overall, the Slovaks went 0-for-5 with the man advantage.
“We have to direct our competitiveness,” Hynes said. “Our penalty discipline has to be better.”
The U.S. tied it up on the power play at 7:15. David Warsofsky’s left point shot went off Nelson’s skate in the Slovak crease and in. A video review determined that Nelson did not employ a kicking motion, and he had his first goal of the tournament in his third game since joining the team after his New York Islanders were eliminated from the NHL playoffs.
With under two minutes left in the second, Auston Matthews, the projected #1 overall pick for the 2016 NHL Draft, came ever-so-close to giving the U.S. the lead when he went to the net to redirect a centering pass, but Hudacek squeezed the puck between his pads.
At 2:53 of the third, Foligno put the U.S. up 2-1 on a broken play, as the assistant captain tried to center it from the goal line and, after he took a second whack at it, Jaros accidentally kicked it in past Hudacek.
Nearing the halfway mark of the third, Noah Hanifin was penalized for hooking Martin Reway when he busted through the U.S. defence. Yet Dylan Larkin came closest to scoring on a shorthanded breakaway, which Hudacek smothered.
Off the ensuing faceoff, the Americans thought they’d scored their third goal, but it was ruled that Foligno had committed a crease violation. Then Foligno set up Matthews beautifully on the rush, but Hudacek was there with a big glove grab.
Skalicky tied it up at 12:14, as Dominik Granak’s shot from the blue line wound up going in off him. Desperate for the go-ahead goal in regulation, the Slovaks pulled Hudacek for an extra attacker with 53 seconds. No dice.
“That last minute was awesome,” said the U.S.’s Tyler Motte. “That’s when some character comes out on the team. You saw it with the five guys on the ice, laying it all out there, blocking shots and doing anything to make sure we got the point.”
After Dano cut in off left wing and knifed the puck past Kinkaid 59 seconds into overtime, he looked heavenward in a brief, crestfallen celebration. At least it gave the Slovak fans a reason to cheer one more time in St. Petersburg.
Afterwards, the three best players for Slovakia were honored, and they were all defencemen: Andrej Sekera, Martin Marincin, and Dominik Granak.