A United States line-up with no NHL players and an anemic scoring attack faces a must-win rematch against Slovakia as the Olympic men’s hockey knockout stage begins on Tuesday.
The Americans, seeking their first gold medal since 1980 and first ever off home ice, have managed only four goals in three games – only winless South Korea and Norway have scored fewer.
And while the US squad edged Slovakia 2-1 in group play, the next meeting comes in Tuesday’s qualifying playoff, with a quarterfinal berth against the unbeaten Czech Republic at stake.
“We just have to move our feet, get to the dirty areas and pay the price to score goals,” US forward Chris Bourque said.
“It’s a great opportunity for all of us, the biggest games of our lives. We’re going to leave it all on the line and hopefully the outcome goes our way.”
The American team is shorn of players from the National Hockey League, which scrapped its traditional midseason break for the Olympics in a row over costs.
However, two-time defending champion Canada are one of four teams already through to the quarter-finals. They will face either Finland or South Korea om Wednesday.
“We’re ready and we feel confident with our game,” Finland’s Sami Lepisto said. “We just have to clear in front of our net, we have to be stronger.”
Unbeaten Sweden will meet either Germany or Switzerland on Wednesday.
“We’re happy so far but if we lose the quarterfinal it will be so disappointing,” said Sweden’s Joel Lundqvist.
“Now it’s starting,” Sweden’s Patrik Zackrisson added. “Now it’s for real. Now the fun games start.”
‘Backs against the wall’
“Maybe we are a bit confident, but on paper maybe Norway is the better team,” Slovenian forward Jan Mursak said. “We’re going to have to give it all on the ice.”
US goaltender Ryan Zapolski, who made 22 saves Friday in beating Slovakia, said it might have been a blessing in diguise for the Americans not to have qualified for the last eight in the group stage.
“I think the extra game might be good for us,” he said. “We need another game to kind of learn about each other and hopefully we can use it to our advantage and get better.
“There’s more pressure now on everybody. Now it’s do or die, so our backs are against the wall like everybody else’s.”
A US team composed of top collegians, Europe-based players and US minor-leaguers is still coming together in some ways.
“It’s difficult when it’s a whole new group of guys,” Zapolski said. “When you get in the zone, it’s tough to sort out.
“We play with new linemates, guys who never played [together] before. It’s difficult to know where they’re going to be. It takes some time to learn about each other.”
It’s the win-or-go-home tension that has Czech star Martin Erat calling the quarter-finals “one of the scariest games of the Olympics. You work to get there and if you don’t win, you don’t get anything and you go home.”
It’s the same in the qualifying stage, where Swiss goalkeeper Jonas Hiller backed coach Patrick Fischer’s feeling that the team has yet to realise it’s potential.
“It’s our last chance,” Hiller said. “I hope everyone knows what’s on the line and is motivated.”