Slovakia Makes U.S. Men's Road Bumpier

Saturday, February 18th 2006, 10:22 am
By: News On 6

TURIN, Italy (AP) _ Short-handed and down by a goal in the third period, the U.S. had one shot ring off the crossbar and another thump off the goaltender's stick. The American men's hockey team had plenty of chances to at least tie the speedy Slovakians on Saturday night, but instead skated off with a 2-1 loss that made the road to the Olympics quarterfinals somewhat tougher.

After squeaking out a draw in the opener against Latvia and then rebounding with a convincing win over Kazakhstan, the U.S. stepped up in class against Slovakia, the only unblemished team in Group B, and moved up and down the ice with the flashy forwards.

``It's a disappointing outcome again, like the first game, but I thought we played well,'' captain Chris Chelios said. ``That's a good team.''

Slovakia (3-0) strengthened its first-place hold in the Olympics Group B, moving two points ahead of Russia and Sweden and three in front of the Americans (1-1-1). The top four in the six-team group move on to the quarterfinals.

Atlanta Thrashers teammates Marian Hossa and Peter Bondra sandwiched goals around one by Brian Rolston to provide the difference and give Slovakia just its second win over the U.S. in international play.

That certainly didn't please general manager Don Waddell, who serves the same role with the Thrashers.

``We shake our hands with Don before the game and said good luck, and that was it,'' Hossa said.

While the Americans held a 30-21 shots advantage, they were hurt by many drives that either sailed off the mark or were blocked before reaching goalie Peter Budaj. Even worse, the rebounds that were left in front were often missed by American forwards.

``We just can't convert our chances,'' Chelios said. ``We had the puck up the middle of the ice a lot, and didn't get anything to show for it.''

Bondra snapped a 1-1 tie and handed further disappointment to the U.S. women's hockey team that watched from the stands one night after their upset loss to Sweden in the semifinals.

After Chelios fell down behind the U.S. goal, Miroslav Satan took the puck and quickly passed out front to Bondra, who was surrounded by four American players. No matter, as he quickly found a spot between Rick DiPietro's pads to make it 2-1 just 1:48 into the third period.

``I have to say it was a perfect pass from Miro,'' Bondra said. ``They raised to our level in this game. They knew they had to try to win a game for the tournament.''

The U.S. nearly got even while short-handed around the 7-minute mark. Jason Blake skated in alone but struck the crossbar, and Erik Cole was denied by Budaj's stick on a 3-on-2 rush.

Budaj, one of three Colorado Avalanche goalies in the Olympics, appeared to fight the puck throughout the game yet he did enough to keep it out of the net all but one time.

He had help in front as Slovakia seemed content to often sit back and wait for the Americans to come at them and make mistakes. When it happened, the Slovaks were quick to transition to offense.

``When they have the puck on their stick, there is no reason why you should go at them because they've got so much skill and so much speed they would just fly and go around us,'' Hossa said. ``We just waited and if we could, we'd go.''

They grabbed a 1-0 lead after Mathieu Schneider was sent off for checking-from-behind late in the opening period.

Hossa got away from Craig Conroy along the right-wing boards and cut into the right circle. Once he had space and a good angle, he let a shot fly that got between DiPietro's pads.

That sent the chanting, horn-blowing and music-playing fans dressed in red, white and blue _ the Slovakian kind _ into a roaring frenzy.

The U.S. responded with a power-play goal of its own, the fourth scored by the Americans in their three Olympic games.

Scott Gomez won a neutral zone faceoff back to New Jersey Devils teammate Brian Rafalski, who played his first game of the tournament after sitting out twice with what was believed to be a rib injury. Rafalski moved it across the zone to Rolston, who ripped a long shot past Budaj with 1:36 left in the second.