I kind of felt bad for Slovakia. They had a good group of fans, dressed for battle in their colors and flag, and singing songs as they entered Gangneung Hockey Stadium. But it felt like the stadium was partisan USA.
They played American country music. The MC interviewed the wife of Team USA player, Bobby Sanguinetti, who shouted Go Team USA! Between periods, an American singer named Ayla Brown, a competitor on American idol, performed “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” between the first and second periods.
On top of that, whenever the Slovakians got a cheer going, their voices would get swallowed up by raucous shouts of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
During Team USA’s first power play early in the first period, forward Troy Terry dropped a pass for Ryan Donato, son of former NHL’er Ted Donato, who wristed a shot into the Slovakian net to give Team USA a 1-0 lead. The crowd exploded.
There was only one way to quiet the seemingly American home crowd – answer right back. And Team Slovakia did so elegantly. Twenty-five seconds later, forward Andrej Kudrina deftly changed the direction of a pass at the side of the net, and watched the puck slip by USA goalie Ryan Zapolski, the cheers of the Slovakian fans loud and clear.
The second period was scoreless, despite the fact that Team USA had two more power play chances. USA had an overall 31-22 shots on goal advantage on Slovakia, partially driven by the fact that the US had five power play chances to Slovakia’s two. And yet, Team USA could not break the tie. They had opportunities. To me they seemed to pass one too many times, or wind up for big slap shots, instead of flicking quicker, more accurate wrist shots.
But then Donato stuck again. Early into the third period, Donata got the puck from the side of the net, his back to the goalie. With ballerina like moves, he spun his body, keeping the puck nestled into his backhand, and then swiftly sliding the puck forehand in the goalie’s five hole, giving the Americans the lead again.
The KHL goalie for America, Zapolski, stood tall and held the Slovaks scoreless the rest of the period, giving the Americans their first victory of the tournament, 2-1.
The “home crowd,” as it were, went home happy.
All pictures taken by the author.