Gangneung (South Korea) (AFP) – The Olympic Athletes from Russia and United States were shock losers Wednesday as the first Winter Olympic men’s hockey tournament in 24 years without NHL players began with plenty of drama and thrills.
Slovakia’s Peter Ceresnak scored the game-winning goal with 11:30 remaining in a 3-2 victory over the favoured Russians by a team assembled days ago by a Canadian coach who can’t even talk to all his players.
“We have a lot of young players. It’s a great experience for them,” said Slovakia’s Ladislav Nagy, a 38-year-old left wing who played eight NHL seasons. “Today is the big win for us, a team win. It’s really good for the confidence.”
Slovenia’s Jan Mursak, a forward for Swedish side Frolunda, scored the equaliser with 97 seconds remaining in regulation time and netted the winner 38 seconds into over-time for a 3-2 comeback shocker over the Americans in group-stage play at Pyeongchang.
“We outskated them in the third especially. We had more energy,” Mursak said. “It’s probably not easy to play against us. Maybe they underestimated us a little bit.”
Jordan Greenway, a Boston University star who became the first African-American player on a US Olympic hockey team, scored in a losing cause.
“It was exciting and something I’ve always dreamed of doing,” Greenway said. “But it would have been a lot better to get a win.”
The upsets ended any notion the Olympic Athletes from Russia would have an edge based on familiarity with a roster taken from the two top teams in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League.
National Hockey League owners had sent players to the Olympics since 1998 but money and injury issues pushed them not to shut down this season for players to compete, so most rosters are stocked from the KHL and other European circuits.
Russia’s talent pool hasn’t taken Olympic gold since 1992 but it sizzled early. Vladislav Gavrikov scored on a slapshot 2:54 into the contest and just 74 seconds later Kirill Kaprizov bounced in a deflection.
Peter Olvecky and Martin Backos answered for Slovakia in the first period and set up Ceresnak’s power-play winner.
“We are trying to teach them, if they just play their hearts out then we have always got a chance,” Slovakia coach Craig Ramsay said.
The Russians couldn’t score on three power-play chances in the closing period.
“In the third we should have scored during the power play,” OAR captain Ilya Kovalchuk said. “We’ve been practicing it constantly but today it didn’t work and they scored and we lost.”
– Language barrier –
Ramsay assembled the squad in a week and fights a language barrier with many of his players.
“Most of them have an idea and some can really speak (English) but a few not,” Ramsay said. “If I get excited and speak faster, even the guys who know it don’t get it.”
The Americans, who play the Russians on Saturday, took a 1-0 lead 17:44 into the game on a goal by KHL Helsinki Jokerit forward Brian O’Neill, who assisted on Greenway’s goal 12:57 into the second period for a 2-0 lead.
But Blaz Gregorc lifted Slovenia within 2-1 with 14:11 remaining and Mursak’s late heroics spoiled the Americans’ hopes.
“When we scored, it was an amazing feeling,” Gregorc said. “We said we just need to stick together and fight until the end and that’s what brought us success. It’s huge.”
Slovenia gets the Russian squad next.
“Everybody knows that they’re good on paper,” Gregorc said. “But they need to show it on the ice.”