Slovakia survives U.S. rally
by Andrew PODNIEKS|13 MAY 2024
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Matt Zambonin
Slovakia blew a 4-1 lead in the third period but recovered to defeat the United States, 5-4, in overtime of a wild and physical thriller this afternoon in Ostrava. The win moves the Slovaks into second place in Group B standings with five points behind only Sweden (six), while the OT loss takes the U.S. into a third-place tie with Latvia (four points each).

Milos Kelemen got the winner in the three-on-three overtime, tipping a Simon Nemec shot past Trey Augustine at 3:56 of OT. Kelemen finished the game with two goals and an assist, while Martin Pospisil had three assists.

The Americans staged a fierce comeback in the third period, overcoming a 4-1 deficit to force the extra period and earn a vital point in the standings.

"​We're a little upset by the third period, but that's hockey, right?" captain Tomas Tatar commented rhetorically. "At the end of the day we got the two points. I'm very proud of the whole team to battle back. I hope we can take this experience for the next game."

"We had a good third period, so we'll focus on the positives going forward," said American forward Kevin Hayes. "They came out pretty hard, and we didn't have an answer until it was too late. But we have a lot of depth, a lot of skill up front."

The Slovaks worked the energetic crowd into a frenzy early on, opening the scoring at 3:17 off the rush. Andrej Kudrna took the puck down the right side and got the puck to Milos Kelemen in front, and his re-direct fooled Alex Nedeljkovic. Nedeljkovic had to perform EBUG duties during the last U.S. game and started today’s game with teenager Trey Augustine as his backup.

The game opened and went end to end for much of the period, punctuated by frequent scrums after the whistle tjat tested the patience of the two Canadian referees. Samuel Halavaj had to make a nice save off Johnny Gaudreau, then Nedeljkovic stoned Kudrna on a partial break. 

Slovakia made it 2-0 midway through the period after Michael Kesserling lost the puck inside the Slovak blue line. Captain Tomas Tatar took the puck up ice on a two-on-one, and as he was going to shoot he lost control of the puck. No matter. Libor Hudacek was right there to stick it home at 11:26, scoring his third goal in as many games. 

Although the Americans dominated the second period in one respect, outshooting Slovakia, 21-7, they failed to dominate where it mattered more—the scoreboard. They struck at 4:48 to make it a 2-1 game when Matt Boldy got to a rebound after a Hlavaj save, but Slovakia answered back with two more goals to take control.

Simon Nemec made it 3-1 at 7:03 when his long one-timer beat Nedeljkovic between the pads, and less than two minutes later Patrik Koch scored on a long wrist shot through a tangle of players in front. That was enough for U.S. coach John Hynes, who took out Nedeljkovic and, for the second game in a row, looked to Augustine.

Despite leading 4-1 and only 20 minutes remaining, the Slovaks made the near-fatal mistake of sitting on the lead in the final period. They stopped forechecking and let the Americans come to them, which in any league is a recipe for danger.

The Americans made a game of it again early in the third, making it a 4-2 score at 4::32. Shane Pinto took a long saucer pass from Joel Farabee and beat Hlavaj with a quick shot, silencing the crowd but lifting the U.S. bench.

Things started to get dicey for the Slovaks later in the period when captain Brady Tkachuk scored a highlight-reel goal. He danced around Patrik Koch and slid the puck between Hlavaj's pads, and all of a sudden a solid lead was now tenuous.

Less than three minutes later, we were back to scratch. Luke Hughes skted oin over the blue line and snapped a shot over the glove of Hlavaj, tying the score and giving the Americans all the momentum heading to the overtime.

"We backed up too much in the third, made too many mistakes, and it almost cost us the game," Tatar added. "It wasn't an easy situation, but we stayed with it, mentally, and we capitalized."