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USA men's hockey melts down in stunning Olympic-opening loss to Slovenia

Sporting News — bschlager@sportingnews.com (Brandon Schlager)

It has become customary to watch NHL players in the Olympics. Since the 1998 Nagano Games, the world's best hockey players meet every four years in the ultimate display of national pride and for international bragging rights. The Olympic tournament has united nations and vindicated others torn apart.

This time, it's a group of underdogs that will attempt to write another chapter into USA Hockey lore.

THE OLYMPIAN: Jordan Greenway breaks 98-year U.S. Olympic color barrier

It started off terribly for the U.S. men's hockey team, which choked away a 2-0 lead in the third period and lost 3-2 in overtime to heavy underdog Slovenia Wednesday in their 2018 Olympic opener. Scoring the game-winner for Slovenia was captain Jan Mursak, a former Red Wing and the lone Slovenian with NHL experience.

Mursak also scored the tying goal when Slovenia pulled its goalie with 1:38 remaining in the third period.

Slovenia, playing in its second Olympic hockey tournament ever, was outplayed most of the game by an American team that appeared much faster and more composed. But in the third period, that composure went out the window. USA goalie Ryan Zapolski was not at fault as the U.S. defensive ranks broke down around him. Both goals were scored when the U.S. failed to clear the front of the net. Turnovers and penalty troubled plagued them all period.

The upset, in context, shows how wide open this Olympic tournament will be. 

The Olympic Athletes from Russia contingent, assembled despite the country's doping ban from the 2018 Games, is favored to win the tournament and represent the U.S.'s toughest opponent in group play. But they also dropped their opener Wednesday, losing 3-2 to Slovakia.

MORE:  How the 2018 Olympics might've looked with NHL players

Fortunately for Russia and the U.S., all 12 teams advance beyond the group stage to the single-elimination portion of the tournament, but group play determines seeding; the winner of each group, plus the highest ranking runner-up, earn a first-round bye.

In the absence of the NHL, which chose not to send players to Pyeongchang, the U.S. men's national team is comprised of outcasts. Many spent stints in the NHL — five games here, 10 more there — before turning to a journeyman career in European leagues. In four cases, players were pulled from their NCAA teams and classes to compete for their country, hearkening to the most famous of U.S. Olympic triumphs: the 1980 "Miracle on Ice."

“To win, we don’t need a miracle,” Team USA head coach Tony Granato said. “We need to be our best and play our best.”

Granato, a longtime coach in the U.S. National Development Program, himself departed his job at the University Wisconsin to lead the Americans, who hold the sixth-best odds (10-1) to win their first gold medal since that 1980 team. That's a longshot compared to USA's usual powerhouse status. Instead of Patrick Kane and Auston Matthews, the U.S. is led by captain Brian Gionta and a cast of former NHLers, including Chris Bourque, Mark Arcobello and James Wisniewski among them.

Sporting News had live scoring updates and highlights from the opener. See how it played out below. (All times Eastern.)

MORE: Watch the Olympics live and on-demand with fuboTV (7-day free trial)

Slovenia 3, USA 2 (OT)

Third period

9:20 — GOAL.  Slovenia pulls off the upset 38 seconds into overtime. U.S. blew a two-goal lead in the third period and Jan Mursak, the lone Slovenian with NHL experience, scores the game-winner. What a collapse.

9:13 — GOAL. The U.S. has choked away a 2-0 lead. Slovenia pulls the goalie and, with 1:37 to play, former Red Wings forward Jan Mursak scores to tie the game 2-2. What a breakdown.

9:02 — Things are getting a little tense now. U.S. captain Brian Gionta is off for tripping 12:42 into the third, and the Americans have a penalty to kill clinging to a 2-1 lead.

8:50 —   GOAL. Uh-oh. A sloppy Team USA surrenders a goal. Blaz Gregorc scores 5:49 into the third period to get Slovenia on the board, cutting the U.S. lead to 2-1.

8:42 — The Americans are 20 minutes from a victorious opener. Third period starts now.

Second period

Shots on goal: USA 24, Slovenia 12

8:28 — USA dominated play the second period. Brian O'Neill and Bobby Sanguinetti were credited with the assists on Greenway's goal. O'Neill has two points.

8:25 — Greenway is the first African-American to play for a U.S. hockey team in the Olympics. In November, SN spent three days with him in Boston. He shared his story on breaking the odds and the color barrier at the 2018 Games .

8:17 — GOAL. Jordan Greenway scores to give Team USA a 2-0 lead 12:57 into the second period. Initial shot by Bobby Sanguinetti. Greenway raced to the side of the net for the loose puck and scored on the rebound.

8:13 — USA has had some penalty trouble of its own. But the Americans kill off a Jordan Greenway penalty thanks to a few big saves from Ryan Zapolski.

8:07 — Matt Gilroy came SO CLOSE to make it 2-0 USA. He rings it off the crossbar with the net wide open on the power play.

7:58 — The puck has dropped on the second period.

First period

Shots on goal: USA 11, Slovenia 4

7:42 — That'll do it for the first period. O'Neill's late goal is something for the Americans to build on in the second. Even though the U.S. holds an 11-4 shot total, Slovenia skated with them much of the period and, lest we forget, this one could be tied right now.

7:38 — GOAL. Brian O'Neill from Garrett Roe and Ryan Donato. USA leads Slovenia 1-0 17:44 in.

7:32 — USA gets a power play as Slovenia's Marcel Rodman goes off for tripping with 5:42 left in the first.

7:25 — USA caught a big break. A Noah Welch turnover left Ryan Zapolski out to dry and the U.S. net wide open, but Welch makes up for it by lunging in front of the yawning crease to make the save on a sure goal.

7:23 — The power play barely lasted one shift. James Wisniewski goes off for high-sticking and we're four aside.

7:22 — USA is going on the power play 9:44 into the first period. Americans have four shots compared to Slovenia's one so far.

7:10 — Here. We. Go.

7:09 — Brian Gionta-Jordan Greenway-Ryan Stoa up front and Noah Welch-Matt Gilroy on defense to start for the U.S. Ryan Zapolski in goal.

Pregame

6:35 a.m. ET —  USA and Slovenia have taken the ice for warmups. Here are the full starting lineups.

Time: 7:10 a.m. ET

Location:  Kwandong Hockey Centre

TV: NBCSN

Streaming: fuboTV (sign up for a 7-day free trial)

Related links  

Wishful thinking: How the 2018 Olympics might've looked with NHL players

The unlikely Olympic journey of John McCarthy, Team USA's ultimate outlier

Chris Bourque exits famous father's shadow to realize own Olympic dream

U.S. Olympian Bobby Butler shares the story behind viral moment with dad

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